Volume X, No. 2, Winter 1982
MARY LOU AND ART CORN S BUILDING PHILOSOPHY
Edited by Gail Hodges
Photography by James Heck, Vickie Hooper and Lisa Goss
Given: A beautiful Ozark wooded hillside, torn-down buildings, an old gym floor, a tin ceiling from an old movie theater turned tavern, discarded stained glass windows, weathered oak siding, and two talented people working five years in their spare time. Result: An amazing home, beautiful, inexpensive and like no other anywhere, blending into its native background, every board, beam and window having a story to tell.
Art and Mary Lou Corn combined their dreams and talents to create this home. At first it was a project involving a change for Art from his demanding job of computer systems analyst, and a chance for him to do some physical activities. "I do not like exercise for the sake of exercise," he said. "That is repugnant to me. But if there's a purpose behind the physical exertion, I really enjoy it. I want to accomplish something. When I drive a nail and saw a board, it's done and I can see it." Building the house was an outlet for Art.
Mary Lou's reasons were somewhat different. "I'm a dedicated recycler if I had any cause. I save everything." Throughout the house from the foundation up, the Corns used what they could find, from the land, by asking people, at fart. sales and from friends. "To me recycling was the whole theme of this project, as well as doing it ourselves. Recycled materials are so much better and more interesting than what you can buy, not to mention the fact that you save money and trees. We are economy-minded. It's just a shame all the materials that go to waste in the old houses they bulldoze down.
"And finding old materials is really interesting. It seems like whenever I need something, I look and look and look, and I never find it. Yet when it gets really crucial, there it appears. People have it sitting in their garage. They say, 'If you'll come and get it, you can have it.' We rarely turn down anything.
"When we were building, I had a friend from St. Louis ask, 'What is your decorating theme?' I said, 'Well, probably Ozark farm sale.' We like old things, and buy what we like from old pulleys and farm implements to elegant Victorian chandeliers."
During the first years of building, Mary Lou did not become actively involved except in the planning. "We are of two different dispositions, which is pretty normal. He has the patience of Job, and I am impatient. So in the beginning, the first couple of years, he would come out on weekends and I wouldn't even come because I couldn't help. I cleaned the bricks and cleaned all the weathered wood and pulled nails out of boards, but I didn't help with the basic building. Only Art could do that, because he had his own way of doing things, and he was very slow and deliberate."
When she realized that the house would really be built, she took off a year to work on the ceiling,
the painting and furnishings. She said, "I always wanted a house that every place you looked
would be interesting." Art said, "On structure, I'm pretty good. On aesthetics, I defer to Mary Lou."
Building the house and furnishing it has achieved what Art and Mary Lou wanted, and it isn't over. When they finished the basic house and furnished it with refinished and homemade furniture and with Mary Lou's paintings and handiwork, they built a porch and added another unit. They continue to plan new improvements. "We are now building a fountain in between the two units," said Art. "Wouldn't that be a great sound in the evening, the water trickling over rocks?"
Spending so much time and energy on the house was bound to bring on doubtful comments from their relatives and friends. "I had a sister-in-law who said, 'You'll die before you move into that house.' I think she caught me on a hot, sweaty summer day and I looked pretty ratty. She just knew that I would die, and I think that she was rather disappointed that I didn't! You hate to be wrong, you know," Art laughed.
"You'd be surprised at the number of people that come here and wonder how our marriage survived," Mary Lou added. "I really think our friends thought, 'They will never live in that house.' Because of the way we built it, nobody thought we would ever get it done, taking that long. But the day finally arrived when we moved in."
The first job in building the house after purchasing the land was to build the long and winding road to the building site. Art cut down trees and hauled rock and dirt, filling a small ravine in order to make a road. The building site is located on the side of a steep hill. The forests are of native Missouri trees and the scents of oak and pine fill the air. The spectacular view from the site shows the surrounding area. From the peak of the hill one can see the forested hills and valleys for several miles. Closer at hand are all kinds of wildflowers, especially in the spring when the two wet weather streams flow.
The choice of a plan is always a major decision in building a house, and so it was true of this one. After extensive searching, they finally discovered a basic plan, consisting of one unit with a basement and upper level in a square design, which in essence resembled a box. When they picked the plan, the Corns wanted a variable one on which it would be easy to add units. They enlarged the entire design, building the front of the basement into the side of the hill with the back opened out onto the ground level. Art picked the actual site because he felt that it had the rocky outcroppings and the correct degree of slant necessary to build this type of house.
When they began this undertaking eleven years ago, they realized that it would not happen overnight since Art was going to build it all by himself using recycled materials.
"While we were still in the planning stage, a big old house became available for materials," Art said. "I went out and ripped some of the siding off of it and saw it was all rough sawn pine. I was real interested in the house, so I put in a bid. It was a very' modest sum of money when I consider all the material I got. It took about six months for me to wreck it in my spare time, and I don't know if I've got all the nails out of it yet.' But I finally used the last two by four and two by six out of that. Now I'm back to buying out of the lumber yards and it's killing me."
Art began the very slow process of excavating for the front of the basement by using dynamite to blast through the sandstone. At the time, since he could buy dynamite over the counter at the local hardware store, Art decided to experiment.
"I didn't have power drills or anything in order to get the dynamite in, so I exploited mud seams between the rocks. I don't know how many cases, four or five, I used in blowing the sandstone. In the front right corner of the hole, there was one little running ridge like a sugar loaf sticking out which I couldn't break. I couldn't get the dynamite to take because there were no holes. I beat the sugar loaf with a sledge hammer and I tried star drills and everything. I didn't want to build a foundation over the sugar loaf because that would cause an uneven heaving in the foundation. So finally in frustration I laid twelve, fifteen sticks of dynamite on there. I just kind of made a little pattern. I hauled fifteen wheelbarrow loads of dirt and dumped it on top and fired that. All of the sticks of dynamite went at once. There were rocks and sand all over the place.
"I went back and looked down in there and the sugar loaf was sitting there just like I'd left it. I jumped down in there to take one more try with a sledge hammer. I hit that thing and it turned to mush about two feet deep. But it was still sitting there in perfect outline of the original rock. The dynamite had totally pulverized it. I was home free'"
Art hauled the dirt out with a wheelbarrow, using part of it as the fill under the back of the house.
Leveling the foundation was the next task Art encountered. "You know you have to get the darn thing level or you're in trouble. I knew about where the foundation was going to go. One day I was out there in the rain after I had the area generally staked out. While the rain was just pouring down, I had this little brainstorm. I remembered seeing something on how some engineer hypothesized as to how the Egyptians kept the pyramids level in the building process." The idea was to let the ditch fill up with water, as water would be perfectly level.
"So I dug a trench quickly around all the area of the footing and waited for the rain to fill up the ditches. When the rain filled them, I blocked the area off so I would have a little irregular pond. Since I knew the water was level, I drove in some reinforcing rods and put a piece of red tape on each rod at the water level. With reasonable assurance that the line was level at the beginning, I went ahead and set the forms for the footing.
"Mary Lou's dad had access to a surveyor's transit. He showed up after the footing had been poured and said, 'You better shoot these corners to be sure they're level.' I thought that if there was a high corner it would be in the right corner, so that is where we started. We shot one, two, three, four, five different corners, and I saw him slapping the side of the transit. I asked what was wrong. He said, 'This thing is stuck or something. We haven't varied an eighth of an inch from that corner up there to this one back here.' After I told him what I'd done, he said, 'You can't get any more level than that.' We didn't vary more than an eighth of an inch around the whole house. So we started on the level and fortunately we stayed level all the way up.
"I make unfortunate purchases from time to time. One was a cement mixer. Having the mixer was a bad thing because then I had the capability to make concrete the hard way. I poured my own footings for the foundation."
After pouring the footing, Art began working on the basement. In building the basement Art held true to recycling and using natural materials. He built the walls of rocks from the foundation stones of the old house wrecked for materials rather than pouring cement.
Next in order was building the ground floor. When he began searching for a support beam for the entire upstairs, he ran into some difficulty because it was not easy to find a beam long enough, but searching the woods he found the tree he was looking for half way down a steep hill. After cutting the tree, he encountered problems in moving it to his work shed. "I had to move that thing in mid-winter, in the snow, and all I had was a little Ford tractor. The first time I tried to move it, I tried to pick up the big end and drag it. It just wouldn't move. So the next time I hooked on to the small end and with about six inches of snow on the ground, it broke loose, and I drug it all the way up the hill. I knocked the muffler, the radiator cap and a few other things off the tractor. I wasn't in complete control but I had it moving. I moved it inside the shed and hacked on it all one winter."
After finding and moving the thirty-two foot tree trunk, Art discovered his next great problem was putting it in place in the frame of the house. "My son and I put the beam up. I dragged it up with the tractor and I got it under the window opening. At that time there was no flooring down, so we put a couple of boards up against the south wall, pulled it over the wall and put a little tripod at the other end to hoist the beam to the top of the north wall. Dragging the thing up, the tripod sunk in the ground and we missed about an inch of having it high enough. I was going to lower it and put some cleats on the end and raise it again. My son thought we could raise it. So the two of us got under the beam and heaved. We rolled it a couple of times and finally got it into position."
After the success with this big beam, Art began to feel ambitious. "One winter we decided to go a little farther and hew out beams for all the doorways and windows. Those were much smaller."
The next step was the boxing and roofing, which Art said, "Is no big deal." He used regular boxing.
As Art and Mary Lou discovered, the old house he tore down was a greater treasure than they had ever imagined. The exterior wall of their house is made of the floor boards what were in the attic of the old house. "There were thirty-three of those one inch by twelve inch boards sixteen feet long, and there were only three nails in the whole thing. They were just lying loose up there."
The ceiling which Art and Mary Lou wanted for the living room was very high and open to the rafters. To build this ceiling, Art built a tower on the main floor that resembled an oil well derrick. "I was not sure it was going to work," Art said. "I nailed two by fours on one side of it, crossbraced so I could climb it. I built it higher than the ceiling. To a visitor it must have looked kind of strange. I fabricated the four braces that run off to the side and support the entire ceiling. I was able to lift one end of the beam up over the wall and then with a little winch, I attached the other end to the top of the tower. I cranked it up two inches at a time. After I got it up past the point where I knew it had to go, I nailed support boards to the scaffold under the beam. Then I did all four of them the same way.
"I took that octagonal piece that's now part of the ceiling and spiked two of the beams to it. I had only a quarter of an inch clearing between the two sides. So I knocked the support boards out from under the beams and one side caught against the other. Man, I was home free' I had it' That was one of these periods where you agonize, because you' re dealing with a hypotenuse of a triangle. I thought, 'Did I measure that thing right? Did I calculate it correctly?' That's when you measure five times before you saw the first time, because if you ruin one, you've lost a nice big beam.
"From that point on, once I had that thing, I could run a tape to the comers and get accurate measurements. I twisted my derrick around forty-five degrees until it faced the corners, and I was able to hoist the longer beams one at a time. I then installed the shorter support or jack beams one by one. The beams are two by tens spiked together, with two by fours nailed on top, enclosed with the rough-sawn siding.
"I'm not an expert on calculating, using a framing square and calculating all the angles. I have to do it the hard way. It took me three or five times as long to do a job as someone who has always been building like this. Each time I approached something, it was kind of a brand new world. There were many, many trips up a ladder to get all of those nails, measure the angles, getting the levels."
After the framing, putting on the plaster board was relatively simple. The main difficulty was the many trips up and down the ladder and the fact that Art had to nail behind his back at a very awkward angle. Mary Lou, being concerned for him, insisted he use a T to help nailing. Two boards nailed into a capital T supported one end while Art nailed the other.
Mary Lou had her own idea on how she wanted to finish the ceiling. She wanted it to look like rough plaster. "She had a little tiny trowel about three or four inches long, and she put all that stuff up there with that little tiny trowel," said Art.
The old house Art bought also supplied bricks. "These bricks were out of the chimney. There were thousands and thousands of bricks from the twin chimneys. So after I got the roof up, I built the fireplace. That was a wintertime project when the weather was warm enough during the day to mix mortar but cold enough to freeze it at night. I'd build up so many courses of bricks, cover it with a big sheet of plastic, and put a little kerosene heater under the plastic. I'd let it just toast all night.
"Since we wanted a smoking oven, I built one in the lower level. I bought the stove from a guy who had an old army range and just cut the oven out of it. The firebox went down below it and the whole thing was covered. It has its own flue with draft controls on it so that I can run the smoke out the chimney or through the oven."
There was great rejoicing when the time finally came to put in the windows because that was the final stage of enclosing the house.
Just as every aspect of building the exterior had its story, so did each finishing detail inside. Right inside the front door there is a tile floor. Art told its story. "We hauled the tile from San Antonio where we found a place that made Mexican tile ridiculously cheap, fifteen cents a tile. We knew the area we wanted to cover, so the young man said the tile would weigh about 576 pounds. I said, 'Hey! That's about like three big people in the back seat of the car. We can just haul those home.' When we had the tile almost loaded, the young man came back out and said, 'Say, I made a mistake. It's just exactly twice what I told you.' So we had 1,152 pounds in the back of the car. We stopped to visit friends in Oklahoma on the way back and they said, 'You won't have any bearings left on that car by the time you get back home.' That car rolled up 193,000 miles and we never spent a dime on it."
On the left side of the foyer are steps which lead to the basement consisting of a bedroom and a combination family recreation room.
The family room contains the large fireplace and smoking oven. The wall that overlooks the valley is entirely glass with sliding doors that open under the deck.
This room has a very unusual ceiling, one covered entirely by tin embossed into designs. "If you take long enough to build like we did, and are champion scroungers like we are, then those things come to you. They were tearing down the old theater at the right time and we got the tin that we wanted," Mary Lou said.
The bedroom in the basement has two heavy cornice supports holding a shelf above the bed. These supports which came from under the eaves of the Dunmoor Mansion provide the bed with an unusual headboard.
Art salvaged the material for the stairway and the railings to the basement out of the house that he wrecked. One support post came out of an old barn he tore down. A nephew of the lady who owned the place said the original timbers had been hewed out by slaves.
The stairs return to the foyer, which is linked to the rest of the main floor by three steps. This is the main portion of the house, which is one large room divided into three smaller areas, the dining room, the kitchen and the living room.
The floors in all this large room are hardwood. Each time Art and Mary Lou made a decision, they made it together as they did when they decided to have hardwood floors throughout the house. The next questions was where to find the floors, but a little scrounging brought results. They purchased an old gymnasium floor from a friend who had salvaged the building at Fort Leonard Wood. The back wall of the living room, like the family room below, is made mostly of glass windows and doors which open to the deck.
Every place you look in the house you can see evidence of the Corn's ingenuity, resourcefulness and talent. The dining area has many candlesticks and refinished antiques. The mantel log came from the Dunmoor Mansion. It had already been hauled to the dump when Art spotted it, salvaged it and used it. Mary Lou's paintings decorate the wood paneled walls.
Each new addition to the house brought decisions with both Art and Mary Lou participating. One addition was the support post in the living room. Art said, "I arrived home from the granary I was tearing down with the support post. I thought it was a little bit crude, and I wasn't sure she would want it. She thought it looked great. It really was not part of the plan, but since we had torn down the old granary, it was available."
"We are flexible," Mary Lou added. "Sometimes we decide to do things and don't do them, and sometimes when we don't plan it, we do."
The kitchen is set off from the rest of the large room by a paneled wall which boxes it in. The paneling which covers the outside wall also has an interesting story. "We kicked the siding off a friend's barn one morning, and he just knew we would accumulate a large amount of kindling because it was cupped and curled and warped," Art said. "He did not believe it when he came to see what we had actually done with it. We cleaned the siding with Chlorox and scrub brush and set it in the sun before we put it on the wall."
Sliding stained glass windows are set in this partition. Art explained, "If you're elbow deep in dishwater and you want to watch the fire or you want to look out over the hills, you can open the windows rather than staring at a wall. If the chief cook wants a little privacy and wishes to stay out of some of these insane conversations that spring up occasionally, you can close it off. Or you close off the clutter which is part of preparing a big meal. Also the light behind the window gives a nice effect."
The stained glass windows came out of the Presbyterian Church at Mexico, Missouri. Years ago when the church was torn down, Mary Lou's Uncle salvaged them and had stored them. He willingly traded her all the windows for a painting.
Mary Lou discovered she had a talent for making braided rugs. The rugs are a beautiful contrast on the hardwood floors in the living room and dining room areas. She began making the rug for the living room when she realized they were actually going to finish the house.
"I started the rug thinking it was only an evening project. When we moved in, I thought I could quit and just have an area rug, but I didn't like that so I kept going. It got awfully, awfully tiring before I finished it to a size of twelve feet by twenty feet. Smaller rugs are a lot more fun.
"I make most of my rugs out of used wool. I recycle old coats and things of that weight. I made one using old blue jeans."
The Corns didn't make all the furnishings. Mary Lou is an expert at picking up furniture at sales or
"Mary Lou does all the finishing, strips and stains all the furniture," Art said.
"I have two beds, chairs and an old cabinet which need to be done now," said Mary Lou. "I want to see an end. I will always buy antiques, but maybe I'll get to the point where there is only one piece to do instead of a whole bunch."
When the main house was finished, the Corns, following their same building philosophies and methods, added on to the original house and started on the lawn. With the necessities done, they built a porch and a studio for Mary Lou with a skylight to work by. "Once we get all these projects finished, then I can devote as much time as I want the rest of my life to painting," Mary Lou said. "That's my real desire now."
There is a solar greenhouse, two private guest bedrooms with their own private balcony and walls paneled with old doors stripped down and placed end to end. The rest of the walls are covered with quilts or wallpaper. "I wanted something very, very special," Mary Lou said about a particular wallpaper pattern she had found. Art lined the closets with cedar.
The house has superior insulation, four inches of conventional insulation inside and an inch of styrofoam insulation outside under the vertical siding. The heating system uses wood entirely, with a wood stove thermostatically controlled.
Though Art and Mary Lou have lived in the house for seven years, each day is new. Since the house is nestled in the forest, on snowy days they can see every animal, especially the native birds who enjoy resting on the deck which houses a very large bird feeder.
Each season on the hillside brings its delight, but the most special time of the year is Christmas. Art explained, "Every Christmas we attract young people who love to be here. Christmas Eve is the big evening around here. We turn out all the lights and I light all the candles. There was a girl who dropped by here on her way home for Curls--ms and she didn't want to go home."
Art and Mary had a dream. They have worked on their dream and can almost see its complete fulfillment.
"About 1985 or 1990 we'll have it all finished," Art said. "We keep adding other little projects, we have another idea to try something. As long as we don't get arbitrary targets that are unreasonable, where it becomes a pressure sort of thing, we can enjoy doing it. It doesn't matter whether we get it done by Thanksgiving or by Christmas or whenever. We just want to be able to enjoy it. I think part of the enjoyment is in the anticipation."
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.
Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues
Local History Home