Prolific architect Vernon Redding, who was undoubtedly the busiest Mansfield architect in the early decades of the 20th century, designed many of the local landmarks we have profiled in this series. He was also extremely versatile, as evidenced by the wide variety of styles in which he designed residences, commercial buildings, schools, and churches.
Late in the first decade of the 1900s, Redding became interested in the new Prairie School style of architecture, a movement born in the Midwest and whose most famous proponent was Frank Lloyd Wright. The Prairie Style emphasized horizontal lines, with residences featuring “…horizontal lines, flat or hipped roofs with broad overhanging eaves, windows grouped in horizontal bands, integration with the landscape, solid construction, craftsmanship, and discipline in the use of ornament” according to Wikipedia.
In 1910, Redding was commissioned to design a house for Rufus Avery Kern. What resulted is one of the area’s best examples of Prairie School architecture and a true local landmark on Park Avenue West.
Kern was a Mansfielder by birth, having been born shortly after the Civil War to John and Mary Gault Kern. John Kern had come to Mansfield at the age of 20, and worked as a tanner; his wife arrived about 1840 and grew up near the intersection of South Main Street and Woodville Road.
The 1940 census reveals that Kern had the equivalent of only a first grade education, however he was obviously a very successful businessman. His concern, the R.A. Kern Cigar Company, was located at 51 East Fourth Street, a building now occupied by National Electric Supply. He was obviously a hard worker – the same census reveals that the week before the census taker arrived, he had put in 54 hours at the office – at the age of 71!
The house at 608 Park Avenue West was built shortly after the death of Kern’s first wife, Irene Mickley Kern. Rufus’ second wife was Susannah Graham Stewart, daughter of local physician Dr. John Sloan Stewart. One funny story survives in family lore about Dr. Stewart; when he was a boy, family records state that John “was known as a boy who loved to tease. Once when being punished by his father, he was told to “get a switch, a big switch, get a small tree.” He proceeded to go outside and uproot one of his father’s recently planted prize peach trees.”
The Kerns (Rufus and Susannah) had two children – Robert S. and Mary.
While living in the house, bad luck seemed to persist for Mr. Kern. In 1937, the Mansfield News Journal reported that he and his wife were struck by a motorist while crossing Park Avenue West at the Mulberry Street intersection, and he was hospitalized for a possible leg fracture. Then, in 1940, lightning struck the house causing minimal damage.
Rufus Kern died in 1962 in Florida, where he was visiting his daughter and experienced complications from a fall some four weeks previous. At the time, his estate was valued at a very large amount for the time — $262,097.
The Kern House exhibits all of the hallmarks of the Prairie School style, as well as some unique elements all its own. The latter includes the unique brick cross motif in the frieze area underneath the wide eaves, which is picked up on the porch pillars. Brick quoins highlight the window frames. The house has its original style tiled roof.
On July 8, 1983, the Kern House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Photo: Public Domain