A Lonely Tower on a Hill and the Sad Story Behind It

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A Lonely Tower on a Hill and the Sad Story Behind It

Korea's first modern buildings were built in the late 19th century during a major influx of Western culture. Historic buildings sometimes capture the politics, architecture and society of long ago, but many of Seoul's most historic buildings have been destroyed to make way for newer structures.

For example, Kyunggyojang, where the anti-Japanese fighter Kim Koo lived in the 1940s, is now the Kang Buk Samsung Medical Center. And Kukdo Theater, once the center of Korean cinema, was demolished last year.

There is virtually no legal protection for historic buildings in Korea, so other important buildings may face the wrecker's ball. Thus JoongAng Ilbo has prepared a series of articles to highlight the city's most historic buildings. This is the first article in the series.

If you walk toward the Kyunghyang Shinmun Building from Chungdong Theater you will spot a sign on the path that says "Old Russian Legation." (It is historical site No. 253, and it stands at 15-1 Chongdong, Chung-ku.)

If you take the hillside road and walk for another 25 meters, you will come across a white Renaissance-style tower. This area today is Chungdong Park. In the 19th century, it was the Russian Legation. King Kojong went there in 1896 to escape Japanese terrorism after the assassination of his wife, Queen Min, the year before.

In 1888 Karl Ivanovich Waeber, the first Russian ambassador to Korea, secured a large plot of land on a hill for the legation. The tower was completed in 1890 under the supervision of the Russian engineer Sabatine, who designed it along with the building beside it. The tower on the hill was so high above Seoul that the Russians could look down on the city and Kyungwon Palace (now Toksu Palace), the home of the king. It was a metaphor for Korea's lowly position in the world.

The two-story, L-shaped building next to the tower was destroyed during the Korean War. Now only the tower remains, and its windows are arched and decorated with pediments. The same Renaissance design was used to decorate the temporary residence of King Kojong and his son, Prince Soonjong, when they left the Toksu Palace in 1896.

After the Korean War, the tower was surrounded by numerous shacks. In the early 1970s, the shacks were torn down and no more attention was paid to the tower until 1977, when it was designated as a historical site.

In 1981, walls and other protection were installed at the site. Reconstruction took place both inside and outside the tower, and workers are now installing a public bathroom. There are plans to begin repairing the cracks in the tower wall next year.

The sign for the "Old Russian Legation," is the only hint of the building's use in the turbulent late Chosun era. But guess what. A new Russian Embassy is under construction next to the old Baeje High School not far from its 19th century predecessor.

by Park So-young

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