A white whale of the local Gwangju exploring community for over a year has been this majestic house. It is a traditional Korean house built during the Japanese occupation, but it looks more like a palace building.
There was some suspicion it was abandoned, but also signs it was inhabited. Turns out it was both at the same time. Our point man in the area encountered an elderly woman who seemed to live there. He managed to make contact, and arranged to set up a visit in which he invited his publisher, a renowned academic on traditional architecture, and me.
1. This is what we're talking about, photographed early last year on my Note 7 after my real camera ran out of batteries.
2. It is remarkable architecture, and so well built that it held up well even after decades of poor upkeep. The brick chimney is part of the ondol heating system, which burns whatever kind of fuel to provide heat for cooking and for temperature control. They are traditionally set a distance like this away from the house. The youngest thing on the structure is the tan sliding doors on the ground floor. As we were to find out, on this side of the house, there is an entrance to a modern home built inside, where this elderly woman lives alone. We were about to get her life story, a little over one year later.
3. Here is the sole resident, Mrs. Choi. She seemed like she had lived as a bit of a recluse, but she was flattered that we paid so much attention to the house, which was built in the late 1930s and early 1940s by her wealthy grandfather. How a Korean gets so wealthy as to build this majestic building during the Japanese occupation is anyone's guess, but she insisted her grandfather was a patriot who secretly supported independence movements.
4. Her guard dog followed us around, barking occasionally but unwilling to come any closer.
5. Here's a quick peek inside the living area where she calls home. Not super traditional.
6. The veranda between the outside and the living area had some impressive woodwork. Materials for this house came from all across the Korean Peninsula and predate the division. The beams in particular were known to have come from far north.
7. She shared a picture of the original gate to the property. An ancestor of hers was fleeced by a con artist from Hong Kong, and somehow the property rights ended up with a local university. They arbitrarily decided to demolish this gate structure.
8. This is its replacement, seen from inside.
9. While everyone was talking about her family history, I snuck away and found the stairs to the upper floor. I took this and hurried back to them before my absence was noticed, as I did not want to screw this up.
10. Here's the rest of the group.
11. After a long conversation, she gave us permission to explore the upper reaches of the house. She hadn't been up there in decades, and apart from a few other infrequent visits, we were seeing something that hadn't been seen in years. The space between the first and second floor had this suspension system, apparently Japanese in origin, and these massive wooden beams from North Korea.
12. I got out onto the narrow balcony of the second floor. It looks dangerous but the whole structure was reassuringly solid.
13. The top floor was buried under a thick layer of dust. It had last been used as a study hall. Note the whimsical cutouts of animal figures in the wood.
14. Hold on, maybe not the top floor.
15. I wish I could have posed someone in here so you could get a sense of how large it was. This was a panorama with I think three photos stitched together.
16. How do you like this wiring setup?
17. This is the top of the stairs.
18. A dusty old framed Korean flag behind smashed glass.
19. At the bottom of the stairs I found Mrs. Choi waiting for us. She seemed flattered at this point to let me photograph her. Her profession was piano teacher, and there were pianos all over the main floor.
20. She brought out a photo of her grandfather, Mr. Choi.
21. She brought us inside the inhabited area. I was curious where the washroom was, and I foudn it here in the kitchen.
22. She served us tea. I have not had many exploring adventures end this way.
23. Group photo.
24. So apparently there is a Bando company that redevelops former abandoned areas.