In 1878, Jule Gilmer Körner began construction on what would become Körner’s Folly. As an interior and furniture designer, decorator, and painter, Jule planned to use this building to showcase his design work to his clients. He filled Körner’s Folly with his interior and furniture designs, as a “catalogue” for his clients to view his work. As Körner’s Folly began to take shape, its unique design defied simple description and the house was constantly under renovation to make way for new designs. No two doorways or windows are exactly alike; there are 15 different fireplaces, and ceiling heights range from 5 ½ feet to 25 feet. The pivoting “windows” and other openings anchor a unique air distribution system, while cubbyholes and trap doors exemplify Victorian ingenuity.
The resulting design reportedly caused a neighbor farmer to comment about the house, “…that will surely be Jule Körner’s folly.” Jule caught wind of the remark and so enjoyed it that he quickly dubbed the building “Körner’s Folly,” and even had the name lain in tile on the front porch. On Easter Day in 1880, Jule held an opening reception and invited his family and neighbors to tour “Körner’s Folly.”
Superlatives fail to describe this home of contrasts and comparisons. It has welcoming spaces, and hidden nooks and crannies. Decorative murals and artwork add a sense of opulence.
Child-size rooms give way to an airy and elegant Reception room. A former stable was renovated into a library and sewing room. The top level houses a private theater, Cupid’s Park Theater, believed to be the first private little theater in America. The elegant, eclectic structure boasts 22 rooms spread out over three floors and seven levels, but to Jule, it was never truly complete. When Jule died in 1924, he had fresh renovation plans for Körner’s Folly on his drawing table…
We invite you to tour Körner’s Folly; it is truly like no other home in the world. Its charms and enchantments inspire wonder and deserve to be shared with generations to come.
Jule Körner was born on Kernersville’s Main Street in 1851. Named after Jule’s grandfather, Joseph Kerner, Kernersville would serve as Jule’s home for most of his life. After studying art in Philadelphia, Jule was hired by Blackwell Tobacco Company to make Bull Durham Tobacco a “household name.” Although he painted signs at this time—and later rose to fame as the painter of Bull Durham throughout the South and beyond—Jule’s attention turned more often to interior decorating and design. Under his pseudonym, “Reuben Rink,” Jule started an interior design company. It was for this end that he started construction on Körner’s Folly, to act as a showcase and studio for his designs. In 1886, Jule married Polly Alice Masten, and along the way his fascinating house saw the upbringing of two children—Jule Gilmer, Jr., and Allie Doré. Jule spent the rest of his life updating the Folly, constantly changing the architecture to meet his new ideas. To Jule, the building was never truly complete, from its opening in 1880 until his passing in 1924.
Polly Alice Masten Körner, a native of Winston-Salem and daughter of Forsyth County Sheriff Mathias Masten, made Körner’s Folly her home after her marriage to Jule in 1886. It was after their marriage that a series of renovations were done to the house to accommodate a blooming family. A dedicated seamstress, she devoted much time to local embroidery and women’s groups, and served as president and longtime member of the Needlework Guild of America in 1910. In 1897, she started the “Juvenile Lyceum,” hosting a space for local youth to perform theatricals and take part in community events. While pioneering the Lyceum, Polly Alice introduced “home-made costumes, penciled eyebrows, and painted cheeks,” in the words of her daughter, to Kernersville society.
Jule Gilmer Körner, Jr., known primarily as Gilmer, was born in 1887 and spent his childhood at Körner’s Folly. Under the direction of the children’s music instructor, Professor Hobbs, Gilmer came to be a skilled violist. He was known to act as Napoleon for the Juvenile Lyceum’s plays, and play in the orchestra pit. An alumni of Trinity College (now Duke University), Gilmer earned his law degree and practiced law in Winston Salem. He later moved to Washington, D.C. to serve as a member and Chairman of the U.S. Board of Tax Appeals, and then entered private practice in Washington where he resided until his death in 1967.
Allie Doré Körner Donnell, known to her friends and family as Doré , was born in 1889 in Kernersville. She spent her childhood learning from the children’s governesses, Ruth Blair and Notre Johnson, and taking piano lessons under Professor Hobbs. She diligently practiced piano for two hours every morning. She became involved with the Juvenile Lyceum as she grew, playing the piano in the orchestra pit and acting in staged performances. According to her reminiscences, she performed with a “full red skirt pinned over my long sleeved nightgown.” She later attended Salem College, and travelled extensively throughout Europe on a grand tour. In 1916, Doré married Mr. Drewry Lanier Donnell, and settled in Oak Ridge, North Carolina with their two children.
Bob the Raccoon
The Körner’s two children, Gilmer and Dore, had a unique pet, a raccoon named Bob! It is very fitting growing up in a house as individual as Körner’s Folly that the children would also have a unique pet. Today, Bob the Raccoon has become our mascot here at Körner’s Folly. Pick up your own Bob at our gift shop!
Clara Körner, also known as Aunt Dealy
Clara Körner was born a slave in 1820; she was of both African American and Native American heritage. At that time, a John Kinnamon of North Carolina owned Clara and her family. Clara worked for Kinnamon until she was fourteen years old, when, in 1834, Philip and Judith Körner hired Clara as Judith’s personal maid. As ardent Quakers, the Körners never owned slaves though they would “hire” slaves to work for the family.
In the late 1830’s, Kinnamon died and Philip Körner purchased Clara because of his family’s close association with her. Philip had been brought up as a Moravian and he leaned toward the Quaker belief that “no man shall own another,” so instead of purchase for ownership, Clara was purchased, and given her freedom.
Even though a freed woman, Clara continued to live and work for the Körners. She cared for the six Körner children, and developed a special bond with the youngest son, Jule. Unable to say “Clara” while they were young, the Körner children called her Aunt Dealy, a variation of “dearie,” as she called the children. Jule’s mother passed away when he was two years old, and Clara became an even more prominent figure in his life. When Jule finished building his own house and business, Körner’s Folly, he built Clara a two-room house located directly behind it.
For an African American in the mid-nineteenth century, Clara experienced many unique privileges. When Philip Körner passed on, he left Clara rental property and a tenant house in Winston, North Carolina. As a property owner, she earned money by renting the buildings. She also spun wool in her spare time, selling her product for profit.
In 1896 Clara died. Clara’s funeral was held at Körner’s Folly on the north lawn. A black minister and a white minister presided over her funeral, and the large crowd in attendance was both black and white. The Körners planned Clara’s burial in the Körner family plot in the Moravian cemetery. However, at that time, the Moravian cemetery was a “white only” cemetery, so the church refused Clara’s burial. This infuriated the Körner family, especially Jule, who thought of Clara as a second mother. Unable to persuade the church, Jule purchased a strip of property that bordered the cemetery. He then buried Clara there, and built a brick enclosure around the Körner family graves and Clara’s grave, so they became a unified family grave site. To this day, the Körner descendents are still laid to rest beside Clara in the Körner family plot.
Cupid’s Park Theater
The Körners always opened their home to Gilmer and Doré’s playmates for games and activities. In 1893, Polly Alice Körner hired Professor Charles Brockman of Greensboro as a music teacher. Together, Brockman and Polly Alice taught piano, violin, and cello to the Körner children and any of their playmates who wished to learn. Polly Alice continued her interest in music and also developed an interest in the theater.
The success of individual recitals led her to consider forming a drama society. In 1896, Polly Alice established the Juvenile Lyceum or Children’s Lyceum where children in the community ages seven to thirteen were invited to create, rehearse, and perform on-stage performances at Körner’s Folly. Forty-two children attended the first meeting on April 3, 1896.
In 1897, Jule renovated Körner’s Folly, turning his third floor billiard’s room into a theater space for the Lyceum. The theater was adorned with cupid-themed murals painted by Caesar Milch. It is believed Cupid’s Park Theater was the first private little theater in America. With Jule in charge of the sets and Polly Alice in charge of costumes, local youth continued to perform here over the next several decades. The entire community was invited and encouraged to attend these performances. Today, Cupid’s Park Theater continues to host yearly performances by local performing arts groups.
Cupid’s Park Theater has been written about, and known as “America’s First Private Little Theatre” since the early 1900s.