If you’ve driven to Buam-dong from downtown Seoul via the Jahamun Tunnel, you may have noticed a small compound of Korean traditional buildings atop the hill on your left just as you come out of the tunnel.
Or perhaps not—they were really easy to miss. It didn’t help that the area just in front of the compound was until very recently a work site.
This compound was the Seokpajeong, the historic villa of Prince Regent Heungseon—better known by his Korean title, the Daewongun—who led Korea through much of the traumatic late 19th century. Famed for its scenic beauty, the villa changed hands many times after the Korean War and until recently was closed to general public.
Last week, however, Seokpajeong—and the hill on which it sits—was finally unveiled as Seoul Museum, the city’s newest art space. And what a space it is. Seriously, make this your reason to visit Buam-dong this weekend—you won’t be disappointed.
Seoul Museum is owned by pharmaceutical company CEO and art collector Ahn Byung-gwang.
Ahn purchased the Seokpajeong in 2006. He restored the old villa and build into the hill below it a 500-pyeong exhibit space.
To mark its opening, Seoul Museum is hosting through Nov 21 an exhibit of drawings and paintings by six Korean artists—including Korean favorite Lee Jung-seop—who held an exhibit together at the Renaissance Coffee House (dabang) in Busan in 1952:
The exhibition focuses on six artists including Lee who held an exhibition at a coffee shop in Busan in the cold winter of 1952 ― even as the Korean War was still raging on ― shedding light on their artistic endeavors while battling poverty in the war-ravaged country. The five other artists include Han Mook, Park Ko-suk, Lee Bong-sang and Sohn Eung-seong and Jeong Gyu.
Yes, the gallery has a coffee shop where you, too, can photograph your significant other holding admission tickets. You can also enjoy cheese cake served in a gourd… which is an unusual way to serve cheese cake.
Wife and some other dude taking in “The Bull,” Lee Jung-seop’s best known painting. Lee’s life was indicative of the times in which he lived. Born into a wealthy family in what is now North Korea, he studied art in Japan, where his paintings met with critical success. He returned to Korea in 1944 and married a Japanese woman the next year. Then things started to go bad—his first child died, the Korean War erupted, and he spent most of the rest of his life wandering around Busan, Tongyeong and Jeju-do. His wife took his two children to Japan in 1952, and aside from one five-day visit, he never saw them again. He would produce some of his finest work afterwards, but it was personally draining, and he died in 1956 at the age of 40.
It’s still got that new museum smell. The shiny floor makes for some fun photographs, too.
Take the elevator to the third floor of the museum, and there’s a door leading to the Seokpajeong.
The Seokpajeong was originally the villa of Kim Heung-geun, a high official who served as Chief State Councillor during the reign of King Cheoljong. Occupying a particularly lovely spot in a scenic valley of Mt. Inwangsan just outside Seoul’s city walls, the villa enjoyed spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and forests. So spectacular they were, in fact, that the villa was considered one of Seoul’s finest, and after Cheoljong’s death, the Daewongun offered to buy it from Kim. When Kim refused to sell, the Daewongun instead asked to borrow it for a day. As it was considered bad form to refuse such a request, Kim lent him the villa for a day. When the Daewongun visited, however, he cleverly brought along his son, the young King Gojong. Father and son spent the night at the villa. As it was considered law that a subject may not live at place where the king has stayed, Kim turned the villa over to the Daewongun.
Or so it is said.
The villa stayed in the Daewongun’s family until the Korean War. After the war, it changed hands a couple of times. At one time, it was even used as an orphanage run by the Columban Fathers, which is bit ironic considering the Daewongun’s role in the history of Korean Catholicism.
The villa is embraced by verdant trees, grand hillsides and white granite cliffs. Along one side is a running brook. If there’s a late summer breeze going, you won’t want to leave. Ever.
As is typical for Korean architecture, the villa conforms to the landscape, making use of the hills, trees and cliffs. I just love the brick arch gate, too—you can find a similar gate at Deoksugung Palace, too. The gate is adorned with flying cranes with the so-called “herb of immortality” in their beaks.
The Chinese characters “Samgyedong” (“Three Brooks Village”) are engraved in a rock just west of the main hall. The original name for the villa, Samgyejeongja (“Three Brooks Pavilion”), was taken from this engraving. Since the pavilion sits on what is essentially a slab of granite, the Daewongun changed its name to Seokpajeong (“Stone Pass Pavilion”). He liked the name so much, in fact, that he subsequently adopted “Seokpa” as his own pen name.
There’s a wonderfully gnarled pine tree just west of the main building. The views of Mt. Bugaksan are inspiring—look closely, and you can see Seoul’s medieval city wall snaking along its ridge line. Not much has changed since the Daewongun’s day.
Over a running brook in a small shaded valley near the main complex is a unique pavilion where the Daewongun would (presumably) come to relax. The exotic gazebo has a wonderful (if admittedly long) name, the Yususeongjunggwanpungnu, which translates as “Pavilion Where You Can Listen to the Running Water While Viewing the Foliage.”
You’ll notice the pavilion is not Korean in style. The intricate latticework, copper plate roof and arched brick foundation are very Chinese, and reflect the tastes of the late 19th century, when Qing Dynasty architecture came into fashion in Korea, where for a time it was regarded as modern. There used to be a Chinese-style brick building here, too, but in the 1950s, it was moved just down the road to Seokparang, a high-end Korean eatery.
Pen artist Kim Yeong-taek drew what the villa must have looked like before the brick pavilion was moved. He drew this pavilion, too.
The last photo is a panorama composed with Hugin.
The essence of Korean landscaping is to utilize the natural landscape with as little human input as possible. And here it is in practice—a running brook and some boulders beneath a tree canopy, with just a pavilion to provide a viewing spot.
The Seokpajeong promises to be even lovelier in autumn, when the trees turn color.
Expect a return visit.
Hours: 11am to 7pm (5pm for the Seokpajeong)
Admission: 9,000 won
Contact: T. (02) 395-0100, www.seoulmuseum.org
Getting There: Take bus #1020, 1711, 7016, 7018, 7022 or 7212 from Exit 3, Gyeongbokgung Station, Line 3 and get off at Jahamun Tunnel Entrance (자하문터널입구). See here for a map.