Historic Architecture of Daegu

Battle of the Spires
Battle of the Spires: Gyesan-dong Cathedral vs. Daegu First Presbyterian Church


Park Geun-hye Country.

Shitty weather, worse food, girls who speak with cute accents and local politics only slightly to the right of Mussolini’s.

While there is certainly plenty of sites of cultural and historical importance around Daegu, most consider Daegu to be — at most — a transit point to be gotten through as quickly as humanly possible. This is a shame, because Daegu, a major 20th century missionary center and one of the few Southern cities to avoid capture by the communists in the Korean War, is home to one of the largest and best preserved collection of modern cultural properties in Korea. I spent a full day there wondering around the historic Jung-gu district, and only managed to scratch the surface.

Recommended Reading

Naver.com’s Walking Daegu Cafe (Korean)

Gyesan-dong Cathedral

Gyesan-dong Cathedral

Gyesan-dong Cathedral

Gyesan-dong Cathedral

When Gyesan-dong Cathedral was completed in 1902, it became Daegu’s first Western-style building and the first Western-style Catholic church in the Yeongnam region. As the central church of the Diocese of Daegu, it has played a central role in the development of Catholicism in the Korean southeast.

The cathedral was designed by Father Achille Paul Robert of the Paris Overseas Missions Society to replace a thatched-roof Korean-style church that had burned down. Chinese stonemasons who’d helped build Myeong-dong Cathedral in Seoul were entrusted with its construction. Of particular note are its beautiful twin spires, which were added on in 1918, and the beautiful rose window with its intricate flower design.

Coincidentally, this Father Robert was a tough mother. He came to Korea in 1877 at the age of 24, just one year after taking his vows. Keep in mind, Korea and France wouldn’t sign a treaty guaranteeing freedom of worship for Catholics until 1886, so this line of work could kill you — in 1866, the Korean court executed nine French Jesuits found proselytizing illegally (along with some 8,000 Korean Catholics). Father Robert served in the mountain valleys of Gangwon-do, tending to the gyo’uchon, or Catholic villages founded deep in the mountains by Catholics fleeing persecution in the towns. In 1890, he moved down to the Daegu region, hiding in the gyo’uchon of Sinnamugol near Waegwan. In 1891, following an attack by ruffians, he was escorted by the authorities to Daegu, where he settled and spent the next 30 years promoting Catholicism in the Daegu region.

Battle of the Spires

Dueling Spires. The church on the hill across the street is Daegu First Presbyterian Church, which also has some 100 years of history, although the church building you see here was recently constructed with an objective that should be painfully obvious.

Interior, Gyesan-dong Cathedral

Stained Glass, Gyesan-dong Cathedral

The interior of Gyesan-dong Cathedral is quite nice, with beautiful pointed arch barrels and gorgeous stained glass.

Daegu Presbyterian Church

First Presbyterian Church

First Presbyterian Church

American missionaries set up shop in Daegu quite early — in 1898, Presbyterian missionaries established Daegu’s first Protestant church not far from Gyesan-dong Cathedral. In 1907, they rebuilt the church in mixed Korean-Western style, and in 1933, they rebuilt it again, resulting in the Gothic church you see above. The steeple was added in 1937.

While the exterior is quite nice, the interior has undergone renovation is not all that impressive.

Technically speaking, this is the “old” First Presbyterian Church, the church having constructed a new and obscenely large structure on Dongsan Hill across from Gyesan-dong Cathedral (see above).

Missionary Bungalows

On Dongsan Hill, just behind the massive new First Presbyterian Church, are three perfectly preserved homes built by American missionaries around 1910.

The family that originally owned Dongsan Hill, coincidentally, was supposedly prepared to donate the land to the Catholics when the American missionaries — sick of living in the filth, noise, and stench of Daehan Empire-era Daegu — convinced them to sell it to them. The foundation stones of the homes come from Daegu’s old city walls, which were pulled down in 1907.

The homes are a real treat — built in the bungalow style that was all the rage in California at the time, these handsome red-brick homes come complete with gardens, lawns and veranda — perfect for kicking back with a drink and a cigar after a long day of preaching to the heathens. Definitely beats hiding out in mountain villages considered privative even by Joseon-era standards trying not to get beheaded.

The homes, now owned by Keimyung University’s Dongsan Medical Center (founded by the missionaries in 1899), are now museums, although oddly enough, they are closed on the weekend.

Switzer House

Switzer House

Switzer House

Switzer House

The Switzer House, so named after its first occupant. Unlike the other bungalows, it has a Korean-style roof.

Chamness House

Chamness House

Chamness House

The Chamness House, which — oddly enough — was built for a guy named Reiner (Chamness was its second occupant). Dr. Howard F. Moffett, who might still be living in Korea, resided here when he was superintendent of Dongsan Medical Center.

Blair House

Blair House

The last of the bungalows, the Blair House, even has a sunroom! Can’t ask for more than that, can you?

Missionary Cemetery

Near the bungalows is a small garden cemetery where several of the missionaries and their children are buried.

American Missionary Cemetery

The plaque on the cemetery reads:

Here rest the missionaries and their families who sailed across the Pacific to sacrifice themselves in spreading the Gospel and to care for our sick while we were still poor and paganistic. Their prayers will continue on for the salvation and prosperity of our people.”

American Missionary Cemetery

Yeah, that’s what we all said when we first got here.

American Missionary Cemetery

It’s always heartbreaking when you see the grave of a child.

The cemetery is quite beautiful in spring, surrounded as it is by blooming flowers.

Dongsan Medical Center

Dongsan Medical Center

Presbyterian medical missionary Dr. Woodbridge O. Johnson introduced Western medicine to Daegu in 1899; he moved his small hospital to the site of Dongsan Medical Center in 1903. American Presbyterian missionaries would run the joint straight up until the 1980s.

All that is left of the old hospital is the facade, which dates from a 1931 reconstruction. The missionary homes, however, have been converted into medical museums full of antique medical equipment.

Chinese Residents Association Building

Chinese Residents Association Building

Daegu does have a Chinatown, but a small one that is but a shadow of its former self.

Chinese first moved to Daegu in 1905, following the completion of the Seoul—Busan railroad in 1904. By 1924, Daegu/Gyeongsangbuk-do had 1,411 Chinese, considerably more than Busan (352) and Gunsan (298). They were quite important in the local economy — in the 1930s, some 217 of the city’s 815 dry goods dealers were Chinese, compared to only 47 Japanese.

Particularly interesting was the Chinese contribution to local architecture, particularly Catholic ecclesiastic architecture. The Catholics, of course, were always looking for a few good Chinese engineers, and in Daegu, they found them in Chinese architectural engineer Gang Ui-gwan and his student Mo Mun-geum. The two, in fact, led the construction of both Gyesan-dong Cathedral (see above) and St. Justin’s Seminary (see below).

Save for a couple of restaurants, there isn’t much left of Daegu’s Chinatown, but on the grounds of the Chinese Elementary School, you can find the Chinese Residents Association Building, a beautiful red-brick building designed and built by Mo Mun-geum in 1929. Interestingly, it’s said the bricks were baked in Pyongyang and its wood taken from the forests of the Geumgang Mountains.

Like most Chinese resident institutions in Korea, the school and association building are affiliated with the Republic of China (a.k.a. Taiwan).

Japanese House Near Chinese Residents Association Building 2

Just a Japanese-style colonial-era home near the Chinese school.

St. Justin’s Catholic Seminary, St. Paul of Chartres Convent, Holy Mother’s Shrine

If you’re Catholic, there’s a lot more to see besides Gyesan-dong Cathedral. In Namsan-dong, you’ll find what is sometimes called a “Catholic Town,” complete with an old Catholic seminary, the bishop’s office, a convent and a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes.

St. Justin's Catholic Seminary

St. Justin's Catholic Seminary

St. Justin’s Catholic Seminary was built in 1914 on orders from the first Bishop of Daegu, Msg. Florian-Jean-Baptiste Démange. Its design was entrusted to Father Victor Louis Poisnel, the man who did Jeondong Cathedral, Gupo-dong Catholic Church and some of Myeongdong Cathedral.

The seminary has an interesting back story. When the Alsatian Bishop Démange of the Paris Overseas Mission Society was appointed Bishop of Daegu in 1911, he made a vow to Our Lady of Lourdes that if she helped him 1) build a seminary, 2) build a diocesan office, and 3) enlarge Gyesan-dong Cathedral, he would build for her a shrine on the highest point of the diocesan office’s land. Soon after, an anonymous benefactor in Shanghai donated a large amount of money to the diocese with only one condition — that St. Justin be named the new seminary’s patron saint.

Construction on the seminary began in 1913 and completed the following year. The money also went to building the diocesan office and expanding Gyesan-dong Cathedral. Our Lady having kept up her end of the bargain, Démange kept up his — in 1918, he built the Holy Mother’s Shrine (see below).

Unfortunately, most of St. Justin’s Seminary has disappeared (the article linked above has an old photo of it); all that remains is the chapel. But what a beautiful chapel it is!

Interior, St. Justin's Catholic Seminary

The very lovely interior of the chapel.

Old Photos, St. Justin's Catholic Seminary 3

Some old photos in the seminary — you have your French, Irish and a lot of Koreans.

St. Paul of Chartres Convent

St. Paul of Chartres Convent

This is the St. Paul of Chartres Convent, run by the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres. It’s a beautiful complex full of gardens and early 20th century buildings. Normally, you can’t run around freely in here — it is, after all, a convent — but funny things sometime happen. As I was photographing the seminary, one of the nuns recognized me from an interview I gave to a Korean Catholic publication last month and offered to show me around the place. The complex has a museum full of interesting displays from the convent’s past. Not wanting to bother any of the residents, I didn’t take a lot of photos, though.

Oh, and the hall you see above was built in 1915 by Father Robert, the man who designed Gyesan-dong Cathedral. The Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres came to Daegu in 1914 at the request of Bishop Démange, who needed their help in taking care of orphans and providing medical help.

Holy Mother's Shrine

This is the Holy Mother’s Shrine, built in 1918. Modeled on the Grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes in, well, Lourdes, the shrine was built by Bishop Démange to fulfill the holy vow mentioned above. Oh, and because the Jesuits had threatened to break his knees if he welched.

Just kidding.

The Latin reads “In accordance with the vow made to the immaculately conceived Holy Virgin Mary.” The dates, incidentally, refer to when Démange assumed the Big Priest’s Seat (1911) and when Our Lady of Lourdes made good on her end (1918).

Believers, Holy Mother's Shrine

Old women praying the rosary before a shrine to Our Lady of Lourdes. Shocking.

Catholic Clergy Semetary

More dead white folk! Some very interesting headstones in here, actually.

Headstone of Mgr. Florian Demange

Here lays Bishop Démange.

Headstone of Claudius Ferrand

At first, I thought the fact that Father Claudius Ferrand’s name was written in Japanese was because he died in Korea when it was a colony of Japan, but many of the other priests’ names are written in Korean. I believe Ferrand, however, spent a lot of time in Japan before coming to Korea — I’m going to assume he’s the same Claudius Ferrand who wrote, “Fables and Legends of Japan.”

Headstone of Mrg. Irenaeus Hayasaka

Bishop Irenaeus Hayasaka was born in Sendai, Japan, educated in Rome and served the church in Sendai until he was named third Bishop of Daegu, replacing Bishop Jean-Germain Mousset, who resigned under Japanese pressure. Hayasaka served as bishop until his death in Daegu in January 1946.

Kyungpook National University Medical Center

Kyungpook National University Medical Center

Kyungpook National University Medical Center

The Americans weren’t the only people in town building hospitals. Kyungpook National University Medical Center, formerly Daegu Provincial Hospital, was built by the Japanese in 1928. It’s a grand Renaissance-style building quite typical of colonial-era hospitals. Gotta love that turret!

Lobby, Kyungpook National University Medical Center

Lobby, Kyungpook National University Medical Center

The lobby is still very period.

Kyungpook National University School of Medicine

Kyungpook National University School of Medicine

Kyungpook National University School of Medicine

Kyungpook National University School of Medicine

Formerly Daegu Medical of College, the Main Hall of Kyungpook National University School of Medicine was built in 1933, and is a rare example of expressionist architecture in Korea. I definitely sense some Art Deco elements as well. Regardless, you don’t find buildings like this everywhere — Japanese colonial architects weren’t known for being particularly bold or experimental.

More trips to Daegu to come…

  • http://populargusts.blogspot.com/ bulgasari

    Nice photos! I hadn’t realized missionaries were in Daegu so early. Fascinating stuff. The Kyungpook National University Medical Center’s turret does look vaguely familiar, doesn’t it?

    This is a bit off topic, but speaking of city hall, would you know anything about the building in the background of this 1919 photo?


    It’s certainly at the location of present day city hall, and I think it was also the contemporary city hall building, (and was perhaps built around 1912?) but am not too sure about that. Would you know what its name was, or when it was built?

  • user-81

    Is the red brick with grey brick edges a common style for churches in any other country?

    Nice pictures.

  • JohnT

    I lived in Daegu. The only the good things that come from Daegu are empty buses.

  • http://www.orientem.blogspot.com/ Western Confucian

    Great photos of a great city!

  • http://rjkoehler.com Robert Koehler

    bulgasari — I believe that is the old Seoul City Hall.

    user-81 — well, red brick is popular for churches everywhere, although the combo of red and dark gray was particularly popular in Korean Catholic churches. I couldn’t tell you why, except for perhaps that’s what the Chinese brickmakers in Korea were good at, the pool of architects was quite limited, and there was a tendency to “standardize” back then. Local resource availability is usually a factor, too. Grey brick might have been cheaper than granite, for instance.

  • http://21cseonbi.blogspot.com sewing

    Great photos. Oddly, for all the time I’ve spent in Daegu over the years, I’ve never seen a single one of these buildings up close. I’ve spent more time looking at older ones, like the Joseon-era 경상감영광원 (Gyeongsang governor’s residence, a couple of hundred yards/metres southwest of Daegu Station) and the 대구향교 (Confucian school, southeast of Downtown). You’ve given me a lot to look at on my next trip!

    That Kyungpook National University School of Medicine is a mighty fine piece of work.

  • http://21cseonbi.blogspot.com sewing

    D’oh! Not 경상감영원, but 경상감영원.

  • http://freekorea.us Joshua

    Ah, yes. Taegu. White Trash Korea. The upper Mississippi of South Korea. The North Korea of South Korea.

  • Sperwer

    Can any of the architecture buffs here tell me the address of the Korean Provisional Government Building in Shanghai? I’ll be in Shanghai in a couple weeks and thought I’d take a moment to see it.

  • http://rjkoehler.com Robert Koehler

    Joshua — I prefer to think of Daeguites as charmingly provincial.

    Spewer — Here you go:


  • Sperwer


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  • redgrandma

    Enjoyed the pictures which my daughter alerted me to. I actually have pictures of some of the same buildings (and others), but they date from the early 1900s. And the “Reiner” guy was my grandfather although they did not live there for very long, the headstone of Nellie Dick was my other grandfather’s first wife, and that same grandfather started the 1st Presbyterian church in Daegu.

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  • moffett

    Dr. Moffett is my grandfather and he moved to America a while ago. Recently i heard from my mom that the nurse called from.his nursing home to say he has about one to two days left… if you could keep our family in your prayers that’d be great.

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