An old house for a new neighbor
It’s no surprise, then, that the old American legation building was the site of some important firsts.
In May 1882, Korea and the United States signed a treaty of commerce in Chemulpo Port (today’s Incheon Port).
In the following year, Lucius Foote came to Korea as the first resident representative of the U.S. to Korea.
According to embassy documents, in August 1884 Foote purchased two houses from two members of the Min family, Gye-hyo and Yeong-gyo.
The Mins were a powerful, aristocratic family from early Joseon that grew even more powerful when Queen Min (1851-1895), also known as Empress Myeongseong, ascended to the throne through her marriage to Gojong in 1866. A large portion of the land in the Jeong-dong area subsequently came into the possession of the Min family, historians say.
“It wasn’t until October 1884 that foreigners were allowed to own property in Korea,” says Kim Jeong-dong, architectural history professor of Mokwon University. “So technically this [Foote’s purchase] was illegal.”
Illegal it may have been, but a certificate issued by Hanseongbu, or the Mayor’s Office in Seoul, four years later further sealed the deal, stating that the properties were “forever sold” as the “premises for the Office of the U.S. Legation.”
With that, the houses had become the first properties in Korea sold to a foreigner.
The occasion was equally significant for the Americans. The legation is one of the oldest U.S. embassies in the world.
Low on the diplomacy list
While other foreign governments constructed their legations themselves, the U.S. government was the only one to use an existing building, in this case a hanok, or traditional Korean house.
Some historians argue that the decision to use the hanok as the site of the legation reflects that Korea wasn’t a country of great importance to the U.S. at the time.
“When the U.S. first dispatched Foote in 1883, his title was Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary. But in July 1884, the U.S. demoted him to the position of Minister Resident, citing low bilateral trade volume and thus a low diplomatic grade,” says Son Jeong-suk, professor of history at Ewha Womans University. “The U.S. continued to send minister resident-level diplomats for the next 17 years.”
Son further supports her argument by saying that most of the American diplomats who came here had little experience as diplomats or knowledge about East Asia or Korea.
“Of the seven official American ministers who were dispatched to Korea, only three - Foote, [Horace N.] Allen and [Edwin V.] Morgan - had previous experience as diplomats,” Son wrote in the book “The Foreign Legations in Korea during the Open-Ports Period.”
“And only two - Allen and Morgan - had previous knowledge of the Korean Peninsula,” Son wrote.
“It is common for embassies to build facilities in a style reflecting national customs and manners,” says Ahn Chang-mo, a professor of architectural history at Kyonggi University. “That’s not only because the staff want to work in an environment they feel most familiar with, but also because the embassy’s appearance is the face of the country.”
Uncomfortable and unpretentious?
The main photo above is taken from a book on Korean American relations called “God, Mammon and the Japanese,” written in 1961 by Fred Harvey Harrington (1912- 1995), a respected American historian and former president of the University of Wisconsin.
The caption is interesting and insightful, reading like this: “This sorry little Korean house was the despair of every American diplomat assigned to Seoul. Uncomfortable and unpretentious, it is inevitably suggested to the Koreans that the United States could with impunity be ignored.”
The low ceilings (low by Western standards, that is) were just one source of diplomats’ complaints.
Horace Newton Allen (1858-1932), an American diplomat and a Protestant medical missionary, was over 183 centimeters (6 feet) tall. He made a request to Washington for alterations to the building, saying that he could not stand up with his hat on. The reply he got from Washington was not to wear a hat in the house.
At one point, the old American legation was also used as hotel.
“In the early days before the railways, there was no proper hotel in Seoul and guests would usually bring some sort of introductory letter and secure entertainment at the legation of their country. A guidebook published in Europe had an entry under the heading for hotels in Seoul - ‘Guest House, American Legation,’” wrote Lillias H. Underwood (1851-1921) in her 1904 book “Fifteen Years Among The Top-knots.”
Underwood, a missionary herself, was the wife of respected missionary and educator Horace Grant Underwood (1859-1916).
The legation’s traditional Korean architecture was a surefire topic of conversation for visitors at the time.
“The native architecture was preserved as far as was possible to the intense delight of visitors of an artistic temperament, who never fail to lavish praise on the effect of the beamed and raftered ceilings fully exposed, with neat white paper between the rafters,” Allen wrote in his book “Things Korean” (1908).
Extensions and restoration
Since Minister Foote set foot in the building, the old American legation has experienced numerous alterations and extensions, large and small, to better accommodate its residents and later, history.
During the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), the compound was used by the Japanese. The Americans came back after the Korean War (1950-1953), but the unsafe conditions at the old legation led them to build and move to a new place, Habib House, in 1976.
“The U.S. government was aware of the value of the building and wanted to find out more about it before launching the restoration,” recalled Chang Soon-yong, the president of Samseung Architects and the president of the Korean Academy of Architectural History.
Chang said that the U.S. government requested that the architects maintain as much of the building’s original form as possible, but also asked them to refurbish the inside so that it was more befitting of a guest house.
“One of the major challenges was the decayed wood. We replaced the interior wood with sturdy, new pieces, but tried to leave as much of the exterior wood as possible,” Chang said.
In 2000, the Seoul city government designated the old American legation as the city’s Tangible Cultural Property No. 71.
By Kim Hyung-eun [email@example.com]