'Strangest house in the world' is a short drive away

What has been called "the strangest house in the world" is in this hamlet 90 minutes northeast of Charlotte. Can't miss it: It's the gigantic and gothic Victorian mansion on Main Street.

It's what's inside that achieves fantasy level - waves of over-the-top elegance by an artist-owner not restrained by money. His eccentric residence has raised eyebrows for more than a century.

What Jule Körner began building in 1878 was quite large, as befitting the grandson of the town's founder.

But Jule was an artist, designer and promoter, and what he crafted inside - and continued to change over four decades - struck locals as fanciful from the get-go. A local wag called its first incarnation "Körner's Folly," which pleased its owner to no end. He had "Körner's Folly" set in tile at the front entrance before starting the ongoing redo within.

What you see today is pretty much how this work in progress was configured in 1924, when Körner, 73, died: 22 rooms on seven levels, including a private theater in the attic that seats 60. (All this, and yet, just one bathroom. There is, however, a brick four-seat outhouse, with a waiting room, out back.)

There are 15 fireplaces - no two alike - ceiling murals in most rooms, tile floors in various first-floor chambers and porches, again no two alike. And from the outside, despite the heavy-duty metamorphoses, it looks as it did in 1886.

A folly? You decide. The residence, a foundation-owned museum, has been featured in the New York Times and described by Preservation magazine as "the strangest house in the world."

Genius in utilizing space

Körner was born in 1851 in Kernersville to an industrious and well-to-do German-Moravian family. He studied art in Pennsylvania and Indiana - a youthful self-portrait hangs in the foyer - and returned to start an interior design business.

His permanent residence began as a drive-thru affair: a two-story structure, brick on dirt: a Victorian bachelor pad with living quarters on one side, carriage house on the other, and a covered carriage way between them.

This wasn't half as unusual as what he did to the place after he married: Körner turned the stables into more living quarters and the "driveway" between them became the mansion's grand entrance. The finished exterior was a gothic affair with all-brick interior walls. He spent the next 45 years endlessly revamping his mansion with Victorian-style overkill.

But ask Bruce Frankel, the Folly's executive director, to name someone comparable, and he'll say Frank Lloyd Wright. "Körner was also a genius when it came to utilization of space. There is no wasted space; there are no 'doorways to nowhere.' He was utterly aware of space and dimension."

That helps explain why most rooms have high ceilings, but the children's playroom tops out at 5 feet 6: It's the upper half of what used to be a taller room.

Frankel is a New Yorker by way of Charlotte. He owns The Mindful Traveler, an online travel company. When his banker wife was transferred to Winston-Salem, they ended up in Kernersville. He got sucked into the mysteries of the old house as gradually and fully as a character in a Stephen King novel.

Masterpiece of flourishes

Like a Wright creation, Frankel says the Folly reflects Körner's own life.

Körner was a quite well-known designer in his day, an award winner at the 1884-85 New Orleans World's Fair. His home, Frankel says, was also his walk-in catalog: The fireplaces, wall trim and everything else varies so much so customers could see the different flourishes and plan and order accordingly.

You see this on a self-guided tour, which takes about an hour and 15 minutes. No room is off-limits.

The vast second-floor reception room is worth several close looks. One of the several doorways is in an archway that also holds a fireplace flue: The 15 fireplaces feed into only five chimneys.

Eight pillars built into the walls are individually different, showing female figures in various stages of artistic dress (and undress). The mirrored chamber holds cabinets Körner designed, as well. Behind fireplaces are what appear to be four phone booths with drapery doors. It is actually a Körner-designed bit of privacy where married guests could retreat from the often-crowded reception room for a private kiss. Körner and his wife entertained constantly - clients, friends, visiting artists, community groups and politicians.

The house became largely unoccupied around the time of World War II; it was in disrepair, boarded up, and headed for the scrap heap in the early 1970s when a group of history-minded families stepped in.

Körner descendants in the area were forthcoming with old Folly furnishings: About 80 percent of the furniture on display is original. Also original are the ceiling and wall murals - some in fantastic shape, others badly damaged by decades of damp air. Most were painted by Caesar Milch, a German artist.

You'd think the trappings would have consumed Jule Körner's fortune, but that wasn't the case. Körner was in demand as what today could be termed an advertising consultant.

Frankel tells this story: The owners of Bull Durham tobacco hired Körner to increase national visibility for their brand. Accordingly, Körner hired four teams of artists to paint the famous bovine mascot on walls and rock facings across the country.

Körner took the promotion a step further by having his crews paint a clearly un-neutered bull. When a painting was completed, Körner would plant a letter to the local newspaper expressing outrage that such a scene was in fully public view. People would flock to see the Bull Durham ad, which Körner would then edit by having his artists paint a strategically placed fence over the bull's back quarters.

Sales soared. Clients wanted Körner to relocate to New York; he stayed in Kernersville.

A walk-in game of Clue

As an artsy couple with influence and cash, the Körners were active on the civic scene. He and Polly were also parents of two - a boy and a girl - and Polly decided to launch a "Juvenile Lyceum" theater school for local kids.

What they built in their attic to house it is considered one of the first private little theaters in America.

It is again in use. The fourth Saturday of the month, a local children's troupe gives a 17-minute puppet show that's about the house. Other public events are staged there, too.

Along with the reception room, the theater is the most popular place in the house. It holds a good-size stage and very high and angled walls - muraled, of course - that bounce sound back to the rows of folding chairs.

What appears to be a small closet door actually opens to a flat roof that had some sort of railing back in the day; residents and guests could step out for fresh air and a third-floor vista.

That's closed off now, but the rest of the house - hallways, stairways, passageways, rooms loaded with heavy furniture and statuary and heavy drapes - must've been prime for hide and seek.

One guest, some say, may not have left.

"Haunted? Oh, yes," Frankel says. Let's face it, the old gothic house looks like a walk-in game of Clue. Ghost hunters set up equipment there several nights a year. In his office in a Folly outbuilding, he pulls out a certificate from the Southern Paranormal & Anomaly Research Society. "Probably Körner would find that amusing," he said.

The manifestation is said to be that of a happy little girl. A recording, Frankel was told, has the spirit saying "Peek-a-boo" amid the white noise.

"The bottom line is getting people to come in the door - to see all the incredible things inside. If they come for ghosts, maybe they'll learn something or enjoy something else."

Attendance at Körner's Folly peaks in the run-up to Christmas - 100 visitors per day - when holiday programs are offered.

Not one to miss an opportunity, Frankel held a news conference in 2009 when the mansion was declared officially haunted. About 1,400 visitors arrived the following month.

Jule Körner would find that amusing, too.