One of the characteristics of Hanok, the Korean term for traditional Korean houses, is the tall gate on top of the stone steps symbolizing the dignity of the nobility during the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910). Overlooking the residential district of Bukchon in the heart of Seoul, the Baek In-je House has the appearance of a dignified Hanok. However, upon entering through the gate, visitors will see an unusual combination of red bricks and glass windows that attest to the fact that the house was built during the Japanese occupation period (1910–1945). More than one thousand Hanok remain in the Bukchon neighborhood, but the Baek In-je House stands out for its special scale and its historical and architectural value.
The house was built in 1913 after Japan began its military rule of Korea through the Government-General. Han Sang-ryong, a pro-Japanese executive director of Hanseong Bank, is said to have bought a dozen houses in the area to secure the land for a great house, and he then had the new house built with pine wood brought from Mt. Baekdu. The house was conspicuously extravagant and often used for parties of high-ranking Japanese officials, as seen in the 2015 film Assassination. Ownership of the house was later turned over to Hanseong Bank, and then to publisher-journalist Choi Seon-ik, before surgeon Baek In-je purchased it in 1944. Dr. Baek was the founder of Baek Hospital, now called Paik Hospital. He was an active member of the pro-independence organization Heungsadan. In 2009, the Seoul Metropolitan Government purchased the property from Baek’s wife, the late Choi Gyeong-jin, who was the last resident of the house, and turned it into a museum. Since the house had been in the possession of the Baek family for the longest time, the museum was named the Baek In-je House.
The house’s architecture incorporated pre-modern elements into the traditional Hanok style. Located in the center of the spacious lot are the sarangchae, the detached house for men; the anchae, the main building; and a large garden and courtyard. The house also has a byeoldangchae, another detached house, to its rear, built slightly higher than the other buildings of the house. The most outstanding feature is the corridor connecting the sarangchae and the anchae. In traditional Hanok, the two buildings are separated, but at the Baek In-je House they are connected so that people can come and go without going outside. Noteworthy, too, is that parts of the sarangchae have a second floor; such an architectural design is not seen in traditional Hanok. The tatami mats and the long wooden floor planks in the sarangchae represent a fusion of Korean and Japanese elements.
In 2015, the Baek In-je House was opened to the public as a historical residence museum. Except on Mondays, the house is open every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. In August, the house is open until 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Admission is free but reservations should be made to see the inside of the anchae, sarangchae, and other buildings. Visitors can book guided tours in Chinese, English, Korean, and Japanese. The Hanok village in Bukchon, spanning Jongno District’s Gahoe and Samcheong neighborhoods, is popular among locals and tourists alike. It is nice to appreciate the quiet beauty of the neighborhood and take pictures in the small alleys across the area, but one thing that shouldn’t be missed is hearing the over 100-year-long story of the Baek In-je House.
Written by Kim Moonyoung
Illustrated by EEWHA