Descendants of premier donate ancient home
A woman’s lifelong desire to preserve the home of her nobleman ancestor has ended her long search for a beneficiary to her family’s legacy.
Jeon Eun-ki, 77, and her 58-year-old daughter Kim Eun-hee, an Oriental painter, donated their ancestor’s tile-roofed hanok, or traditional Korean home, and the surrounding 101,500-square-meter (25-acre) plot of land in Icheon, Gyeonggi, last month to Seoul National University.
Jeon and Kim are descendants of Kim Jwa-geun (1797-1869), who served as a premier three times in the late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
The aging house, registered as a cultural asset of Gyeonggi Province, is in the middle of renovations, and Kim Jwa-geun’s tombstone was recently placed in the courtyard. A personal note by King Gojong (1852-1919), better known as Heungseon Daewongun, is carved on the tombstone.
The late Kim was a core figure within the Andong Kim family, one of the most prestigious and illustrious Korean lineages. He served as a high-ranking official under King Cheoljong (1831-1863) and Gojong.
SNU architecture professor Jeon Bong-hee, who accompanied school president Lee Jang-moo to visit the house on Wednesday, said the land is worth about 6 billion won ($4.8 million). But Jeon said that the value of the house as a cultural asset cannot be compared to the land’s monetary value.
The house is presumed to have been built in 1865. At that time, the late Kim owned a main house in Seoul but built another house of his own in Icheon with 99 rooms.
“There are approximately 600 traditional houses that are registered as cultural assets nationwide. However, this house is the only one that has remained for a long period of time as an annex to the main residence of an authoritative public official,” Jeon said. “Delicately trimmed wood, top-quality decoration and solid doors represent how influential members of the Andong Kim family were at that time.”
The professor added that the structure of the house and the construction techniques are regarded as historical material that could be popular among scholars for research.
The elder Jeon had been thinking of donating the old house since 1997 when her husband died.
But it was not easy to take care of the house with only her single daughter. They have no children pass the legacy onto. It was even difficult to protect the house, as thieves often tried to steal expensive relics and other valuable items.
The two thought of selling the house and then using the money to create a scholarship. They also considered leaving it to religious groups.
Eventually, they decided to turn it over to the university because the school promised to protect the house and use it for academic research.
“I read a newspaper article last year that said professor Jeon was studying hanok,” the elder Jeon said. “All of a sudden, I thought the professor might be the right person to take good care of the aging residence.”
The mother said she decided to donate the land as well because the land and the house cannot be separated.
“The late ancestor might be happy to see the new rightful owner of his legacy,” said the elder Jeon.
By Lim Mi-jin [firstname.lastname@example.org]