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SEOUL — A little more than a year ago, the American Embassy legation house — a greeting and guest house next to the U.S. ambassador’s residence in the historic Chong-dong neighborhood — was a crumbling relic.

Unused since the 1980s, time had taken its toll on the historic structure and part of the roof had collapsed. It was an undignified state for a building that saw the birth of America’s relationship with Korea, officials said.

But now the legation house is emerging from a year of State Department-funded renovation. The process has restored the structure to what it probably looked like when Lucius Foote, the first American representative to Korea, bought the property in 1884 for around $2,200.

A rich smell of unfinished Korean-grown pine fills the air even outside the structure. The wood is treated with a linseed oil-like substance that acts as a preservative, said Peter E. Bartholomew of the Royal Asiatic Society, also an architecture enthusiast who led a recent tour for journalists.

The building has been restored in the Chosun Dynasty-era style, with thick, circular wooden beams supporting a clay-tiled roof that extends beyond the building’s walls.

The legation house also has elements of the West, with couches, plump chairs and central heating and cooling. Inside, the legation house has two bedrooms, a kitchen and a common area.

Before Foote bought it, the legation building may have housed concubines, as many houses in the area of Doksu Palace housed the court’s women, according to information published by the State Department. It’s thought that Kojong likely commissioned a royal architect and master carpenter to build the structure.

Congress eventually appropriated funds in 1887, and Foote deeded the properties to the U.S. government for $4,400, according to State Department information.

By the next year, it was U.S. government property, soon joined by other countries’ legation houses in the area. But the U.S. building was the first foreign legation office in Seoul and the only one today that remains an example of traditional Korean architecture.


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