New life for an old house

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New life for an old house

As I made my way through the labyrinthine streets of Bukchon, cell phone in one hand, I wondered if I would ever find the house. "Park the car around the prime minister's residence," said Kim In-sook, "cross the street and look for a street sign that says 'Stone Steps Way,' and walk straight up until you see a small corner shop. The house is diagonally across the shop." Right. No problem.

After a five-minute walk up a couple of flights of stairs, an eclectic neighborhood emerged, a mix of "villas," low-rise apartments actually, Western-style houses and traditional Korean houses, or hanok.

For someone accustomed to the convenience of finding a parking space right in front of the apartment building and taking the elevator up to the house, a question is raised: "Why would anyone abandon the convenience of apartment living for this?" After all, hanoks have a notorious reputation for being an icebox in the winter and generally difficult to maintain.

It does not take long to spot the house, a house that stands out because of its low wall. Most homes in the neighborhood have walls so high they completely block any view of the building inside. To approach the house, one needs to turn the corner because, like many Korean houses, its main gate opens to a pedestrian alley that branches off from the larger street.

The house at Samcheong-dong 35 has a proud two-door wooden gate that dates back to the 1920s when the original house was built. The neighborhood, between Gyeongbok and Changdeok palaces in downtown Seoul, is known as Bukchon, or North village. Unlike the much older sprawling hanoks that the nobility and high officials of the area lived in, this house is typical of the urban hanok built in the 1920s and 1930s ?more compact and sensible.

The door, which creaks gently, opens up to a small, roofed-entrance hall separated from the rest of the house by sliding panels of wood and glass. Beyond the entrance lies the house proper surrounding a square courtyard with embedded granite slabs and a 5-month-old Golden Retriever taking an afternoon nap.

Sitting on the wooden floor, looking out at the courtyard through the sliding panels, it is apparent even to the first-time visitor why this three-generation family of five chose to make the move.

"The beauty of hanok," Ms. Kim, 44, said, "is that you can feel the outside air on your face and have nature right next to you, even while you are inside the house."

The family previously lived in a huge apartment complex, but had wished for a house like this for quite some time. Tired of the gray uniformity of the apartments, they bought a small house in the countryside about 10 years ago that they use as a weekend house.

Last November, the family decided they would move into a hanok. "We were looking around this neighborhood when we happened upon this house which was being renovated," she said. "It looked like a haunted house with only the skeleton left standing." But they saw the home's potential beauty and persuaded the owner to sign a rental contract that evening.

The owner, Chang You-hwan, 55, who had lived in the house for more than 30 years, had begun the renovation at the end of October, taking advantage of funding the city just recently provided to redevelop and preserve Bukchon as a hanok neighborhood. "The house was falling apart and the 30 million won subsidy and 11 million won low-interest loan could not have come at a better time," said Mr. Chang. It took a total of 100 days and some 400 different workers working at various stages to complete the renovation, costing a total of 75 million won ($57,000).

In the process, Mr. Chang, who teaches at an institute for elementary students, fell in love with the home. "So much wisdom went into building it," he said.

Unless a house is lived in, it's just a historical shell. To bring the hanok up to date, to make it more livable, Mr. Chang made a few changes. He built a fully equipped kitchen and a modern bathroom inside the house -- traditionally, in hanok, they were outside the main building. He replaced the wood-heated ondol, or floor heating, with a gas-heated floor. But in the interest of preservation, he kept the gudeuljang, or slabs of granite, that olden-style ondol require, using them instead for the floor of the courtyard.

According to Ms. Kim, who moved in in early February, the house is not as cold as she had expected. "It did get so drafty that my daughter couldn't sleep in her bed which is placed next to the wall. But once she took to the floor to sleep, it was O.K.," Ms. Kim said. The gudeuljang in the annex were Ms. Kim's son stays was left intact. "We burnt wood to heat the room once and it was different from a gas-heated ondol," Ms. Kim said.

Ms. Kim's mother, Bang Seon-nyeo, 83, could not be happier in the new house. "It is not suffocating like apartments." she said. "It is a hanok, but modern and convenient, not like the old days."

Her son, Cho Jai-min, 22, especially values his room. "I like the independence of the space," said Mr. Cho, a member of the national ski team, who also finds the house cozy and peaceful.

Built on a 30-pyeong lot (about 100 square meters), the three-bedroom hanok has a floor space of 20-pyeong. Its horseshoe-shape and high ceilings make it seem larger than an apartment of the same size.

Although the original house was completely torn down, the timbers from the old house were used as pillars, cross beams and rafters. Where the pillar bottoms had rotted, they were cut away and timber from other demolished hanok replaced the cut sections. "The carpenters did this because the kind of timber that was used originally is no longer manufactured," Mr. Chang said. The woodwork is left exposed and, together with the white plaster over the mud walls and yellowish tint of the wooden floor, the house appears to be bathed in warm glowing light. The smell of wood adds to the aura of serenity.

The original roof tiles were used and, where pieces were missing, they were culled from other worksites were hanoks were being demolished. "This house will see another 100 years," Mr. Chang said.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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