Korean style, Western comfortsLess than a week before returning home for good, U.S. Ambassador to Korea Thomas Hubbard and his wife, Joan, had one last mission: to officially open the Old Legation House inside their home of just under three years.
Last Wednesday, the mid-day heat did not deter a few dozen guests who were able to get a sneak preview of the historically significant spot in town, usually off-limits to the public. Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak, who offered congratulations, was one of the tape-cutters, along with the Hubbards, at the opening ceremony.
According to the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs Office, the official completion of the house is due “sometime in the near future,” but Mr. and Mrs. Hubbard’s departure prompted the early ceremony.
When the work is completed, the new ambassador, Christopher Hill, and his wife, Patricia, will be able to use the house for various diplomatic functions and the guesthouse for high-level visitors. They will arrive in mid-August.
The Old Legation House had been used as a guesthouse by successive American ambassadors to Korea in the past, but by the time Mrs. Hubbard arrived in Korea in September 2001, she found that it had been shut down since March 1999.
“It was condemned. We were not even allowed to go in and instead were asked to sit on the stones outside,” Mrs. Hubbard said.
There was talk about turning the house into a museum, but Mrs. Hubbard wanted it to remain a guesthouse. “By keeping the house as a guesthouse, it will be a living museum for the next 100 years,” she said.
The U.S. State Department owns and manages both the Habib House, the main building where the American ambassador and his family reside, and the Old Legation House, which is inside the compound of the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Jungdong, northern Seoul.
What makes the ambassador’s home different from other diplomatic properties outside the United States is that both the residence and Old Legation House adhere to traditional Korean architecture.
The Old Legation House stands today as a testament to the dynamic history of modern Korea. It is the first foreign building on Korean palace grounds, as a traditional Korean-style structure that was renovated to accommodate a Western lifestyle.
Built in 1883, the Old Legation House was officially purchased in 1884, becoming the first overseas property owned by the U.S. government. According to one record, Lucius Foote, the first American resident representative to Korea, purchased two closely located buildings from a family surnamed Min for $2,200 in 1884. One building in the north became the diplomat’s residence; the other became a legation house.
The purchase became official in 1887, and the house was renovated in 1905 to suit an American lifestyle. For example, instead of the traditional ondol, or floor heating system, the house had wooden floors with a boiler system. It also had a Western-style dining room, kitchen and bathrooms.
The area known today as Jungdong is where Korea’s royal families once resided. The site of the Old Legation House was originally the home of Prince Wolsan, the brother of King Seongjong (1457-1494) of the Joseon Dynasty. It served as temporary homes for royal families on the run during wars.
The sale of such an exclusive site to Americans was an example of King Gojong’s friendliness toward American diplomats. After the king allowed foreigners to reside inside the city’s gates, more foreign legation houses were built in the area.
After the murder of Queen Min on Oct. 8, 1895, King Gojong, who had taken refuge in the Russian Legation House, moved to the Old Legation House in 1896 and spent a year there before moving to Deoksu Palace. In 1905, the Old Legation House was shut down to function as a consulate as diplomatic rights went to Japan.
Because of its historical importance, on April 6, 2001, the Old Legation House was designated as Cultural Property No. 132. But the plan to restore the Old Legation House began earlier, in 2000, when representatives of the Office of Foreign Buildings Operations examined the house and prepared a budget estimate.
A local architectural firm, Samseung Architects, and the contractor, Wontaek Construction, were in charge of the two-year project. The reconstruction of the 60 pyeong (198 square meters) house, which has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining room and a kitchen, required the work of 2,500 local technicians. The U.S. Embassy refused to reveal how much the project cost.
The house is distinctively Korean but also bears characteristics of 19th-century Western architecture, such as red bricks and granite. From afar, the windows look like traditional changho, or Korean latticework panels and rice paper, but they are fortified with glass and have sliding doors.
The open ceiling exposes traditional natural-wood rafters, but the centralized heating and cooling system blows air through metal grids on the edge of the wooden floor.
Furnished by American decorator Susan Meyer, the interior features Chinese Min-style chairs,a Korean sabangtakja (decorative cabinet) and an all-American comfy sofa.
by Ines Cho