This week we conclude our series on preserving Korea’s national treasures. It began with a trip to the National Palace Museum, then a visit to the Preservation Rooms at the National Museum, followed by a look at the Joseon Royal Tombs. This week, Jo and I were afforded a rare look inside Sungnyemun (Namdaemun), Korea’s National Treasure Number One. An arsonist set fire to the structure in 2008 and the Cultural Heritage Association has been working ever since to restore its glory. Come with us inside as we take a rare peek at the progress.
The Gate and Fire
From Wikipedia: “Namdaemun (남대문), officially the Sungnyemun (숭례문), is one of the Eight Gates in the Fortress Wall of Seoul, South Korea, which surrounded the city in the Joseon Dynasty. The gate, which was begun in the 14th century, is a historic pagoda-style gateway, and is now listed first among the National Treasures of South Korea. It was once one of the three major gateways through Seoul’s city walls, which had a stone circuit of 18.2 kilometers (11.3 mi) and stood up to 6.1 meters (20 ft) high. The gate is located between Seoul Station and Seoul City Plaza. The historic 24-hour Namdaemun market is next to the gate where it has been operating for centuries.
At approximately 8:50 p.m. on February 10, 2008, a fire broke out and severely damaged the wooden structure at the top of the Namdaemun gate. The fire roared out of control again after midnight and finally destroyed the structure, despite the efforts of more than 360 firefighters. Many witnesses reported seeing a suspicious man shortly before the fire, and two disposable lighters were found where the fire was believed to have started. A 69-year-old man identified as Chae Jong-gi was arrested on suspicion of arson and then later confessed to the crime. A police captain reported that Chae sprayed paint thinner on the floor of the structure and then set fire to it.”
Shortly thereafter, the Cultural Heritage Association vowed to rebuild the important symbol of Seoul to solidify its status as National Treasure Number One. To do this, authentic construction methods would be used, ensuring the new gate would be built in the same spirit and manner as the original.
Rebuilding Namdaemun (Sungnyemun)
This wasn’t the first time the historic gate had been rebuilt. In 1961, Sungnyemun was dismantled in an effort to preserve the structure. Not only was the wooden pavilion completely taken apart, but some blocks from the stone base were dismantled as well. This preventative measure allowed engineers the opportunity to carefully create modern construction plans during the process. This turned out to be lucky, since the fire devastated the gate and much of the structure would need to be rebuilt from scratch.
The current effort was divided into three phases. Phase I began immediately after the fire and encompassed recovery efforts. The Cultural Heritage Association (CHA) was able to save more than 3000 wooden elements and conducted precise 3D scanning of the structure. Phase II was conducted between June and December 2008. The Investigation, excavation, and design stage allowed the CHA time to formulate how they were going to approach the rebuild. During this period they began identifying the master artisans who would later build the gate and the authentic materials needed for its completion. The final phase is nearing completion, which includes actual construction of the gate. The process for this was outlined as follows: dismantle the structure, rebuild the adjacent fortress wall, build the base, complete the roof, and hang the naming plaque.
Taking on a task this large is no easy job. A lot needed to fall into place to get this National Treasure back into tip-top shape and that really fell on the shoulders of six master builders and other artisans called into to supervise every detail, right down to painting the pavilion. The CHA also needed to locate pine trees for the structure. While nearly 50% of the wood from before the fire was usable, this meant finding additional timber. Trees from Samcheok and Gangneung provided the bulk of the wood, with other areas in Gangwondo rounding out the mix. The massive granite base also needed to be patched back together. Quarries in Pocheon provided this resource, but that was only the beginning. Blocks forming the base of the gate (yook-chuk/육축) and the start of the fortress wall (seong-beok/성벅) had to be carved by hand. Currently 90% of the stones comprising the yook-chuk are original and 50% of the seong-beok is made from new granite blocks.
Every weekend, visitors are allowed into the reconstruction viewing area, but for this report, the CHA was kind enough to allow us to walk inside the gate. It was an incredibly moving experience. Everyone involved with the restoration project is filled with intense pride and anxious to see the gate opened once more. Probably my favorite moment inside was standing in the passageway, looking up at the original wooden floor of the pavilion, still unscathed from the fire, before being touched up for the gate’s public opening in 2013.