A labor of love for meter: a poet's boyhood home is saved

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A labor of love for meter: a poet's boyhood home is saved

Thanks to a group of culturally-minded architects, the boyhood home of the poet Lee Sang (1910-1937) was recently spared demolition.

After beginning a career as an architect, Mr. Lee became ill. He suffered from pneumonia, mostly. He took up poetry to overcome his afflictions, and his poetry is famed for its profundity and genius. Eventually, though, he died ?in Tokyo, after his release from prison. He had been jailed by the Japanese colonial authorities for producing "disquieting thoughts."

Though his poems and essays survive in textbooks as an integral part of Korean modern literature, the place where he spent most of his life was practically forgotten. Long abandoned, the house is in Tongin-dong, central Seoul, near Gyeongbok Palace.

Despite the poet's reputation, the house is now a shabby book rental shop with small living quarters. Only its tile roof is reminiscent of the old times, when Mr. Lee lived there. Park Bun-geum, 73, who owns the house, recently put it up for sale, saying it was too old to inhabit.

Kim Won, a representative of the Kim Su-geun Culture Foundation, a group of architects, heard about the house and took action. "Everything was going black when I heard about the news from the JoongAng Ilbo last October that the house would be given over to some building contractors," Mr. Kim says.

He was ready to do anything to stop the destruction of the house. Though the dwelling is more than 100 years old, it is just one of many like it in the neighborhood.

Mr. Kim's foundation signed a contract to buy the property late last month, saving the house. The foundation was initially not allowed to own the land because it was protected by the government as a cultural property.

Nevertheless, the house, before it was bought by the foundation, attracted several buyers, who wanted to buy it for its location, not its historical value. The owner, Ms. Park, insisted on selling it to someone who would honor the poet's memory.

Mr. Kim says the house will be used accordingly -- possibly as a teahouse named Jebi, which means "swallow," the name of a cafe the poet once ran himself.

Mr. Kim has nothing but contempt for the officials he had to deal with before buying the house and their bureaucratic inefficiency.

"In the long run, we rely on these officials to preserve cultural properties," he said.

The officials asked him to submit detailed documents on the cultural value of the building, but didn't have their heart in the job, he said.

"Those half-hearted officials need to change their mind-set," he said.

"They don't want to do something that might put a burden on their shoulders."

by Woo Sang-kyun
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