An Album of Korean Palaces at The New York Public Library

By Hee-Gwone Yoo, Librarian II, General Research Division
May 31, 2023
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
The binding cover of the album, Pictures of Former Korean Palaces.
The binding cover of the album, Pictures of Former Korean Palaces. Call number is: *OTF+++ 98-3911.

With unique treasures donated or purchased from renowned scholars, NYPL is committed to the digitization of photographs so that scholars and students will have free access to them. A lack of documentation makes it impossible to determine the provenance of these Korean materials. A brief description of rare Korean artifacts would be beneficial to researchers and scholars in this field.

Among the collections of rare and valuable photograph albums at the Library, Pictures of Former Korean Palace is a rich and unique example. The album contains information regarding the roles of royal palaces, which existed for almost 700 years from 1395 "when the Yi Dynasty" was established in Han-Yang (Seoul). In vivid black and white pictures, individual palaces and pavilions, bridges and gates, as well as people in the city, it depicts the Five Grand Palaces (ChangDeokGung, ChangGyeongGung, GyeongBokGung, GyeongHuiGung, and DeokSuGung). The album also contains various structures, Royal toms, and kings’ calligraphies.  

The album was bound in the 1950s in Seoul along with one portfolio of 144 photographs taken between 1910 and 1920 during the Japanese colonization of Korea.  In the album, no information is provided as to the provenance of the photographs, except for the captions in Korean that read: “구황실재산사무총국장 윤우경; 다이켈만소장귀하” [ Director of the Office of Former Imperial Household, Yoon Woo-Kyung; to Major General Deichelmann].  There is an English index to the pictures of former Korean palaces at the end of the album. Each plate is accompanied by a descriptive guard sheet.

According to the Korean captions, the album was dedicated to Major General Matthew K. Deichelmann (1905-1989) by Woo-Kyung Yoon, who was a director of the Office of Former Imperial Household (Korea) from 1955 to 1960. It appears that the album was given to Deichelmann during his stay in Seoul, Korea, around 1956 or 1957. In spite of this, it is difficult to locate any records pertaining to how the album came into the Library.  

GyeongBokGung (경복궁) 40 Pictures (nos. 43-81)

Image of: Yung Chu Moon. (no. 53); Jai Soo Kak (front). (no.54)
Yung Chu Moon. (no. 53); Jai Soo Kak (front). (no.54)

The palace served as a home for the kings of the dynasty, their households, as well as the Joseon government and was the first and largest palace of the Joseon dynasty. We know from one of the images, YongChuMoon (no. 53), that the photographs in this album were taken in the 1920s. The left wall of the gate collapsed when the Japanese installed a new trolley in 1926 (and the YungChuMoon was demolished), which makes it clear that most of the photographs in the album were taken during the 1920s.

ChangDeokGung & Secret Garden (창덕궁, 비원): 42 pictures (Picture no. 1-42)

Image of the Office of Former Imperial Household (Korea),  June 1960.
Office of Former Imperial Household (Korea), June 1960.

Known as the East Palace (동궐), it is surrounded by secret gardens with pavilions and ponds. During the Imjin War (1592-1598), the GyeongBokGung—the main palace—was destroyed by fire and abandoned for two centuries. Before the GyeongBokGung was restored in the mid-19th century, ChangDeokGung served as the main palace.    

ChangGyeongGung (창경궁): 21 pictures (nos. 84-103)

The palace was built in the mid-15th century by King SeJong (r. 1418-1450) for his father, Taejong (r. 1400-1418), and was renovated and enlarged in 1483 by King SeongJong (r. 1469-95). During the Japanese colonial period, a zoo, botanical garden, and museum were built on the site. The park was named ChangGyeongWon Park, with "won" representing the Korean word for zoo.    

GyeongHuiGung (경희궁): 2 pictures (nos. 82-83)

Image of: HeungHwaMun and SungJeongJeon in the 1920s at the GyeongHuiGung Palace
HeungHwaMun and SungJeongJeon in the 1920s at the GyeongHuiGung Palace

The album contains only two photographs of the palace, as the other buildings were demolished or relocated during the Japanese colonial period. In the mid-19th century, materials from some buildings (woods, stones, roofs, interiors, etc.) were used for the restoration of the GyeongBokGung.

The Japanese Government-General of Korea Middle School (later known as GyeongSeong Middle School), was built in the 1910s–1920s at the site of the palace's remains. In 1926, SungJeongJeon (no.83), the main building for the king’s office, was moved to the base of Namsan Mountain and is now used as JeongGakWon, Dongguk University’s main hall. HeungHwaMun Gate (no. 82) served as the gate of BakMunSa Temple, the shrine of Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909), in 1932, but was closed in 1945 when Korea was liberated from Japan's colonization. Fortunately, the gate was returned to its original location in 1988. 

DeokSuGung (덕수궁): 10 Pictures (104-114)

Image of: The Royal Family in the New Year of 1919
The Royal Family in the New Year of 1919

Also known as GyeongUnGung, DeokSuGung (the palace), was inhabited by members of Korea's Royal Family during the Joseon monarchy until the annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910. The garden and fountain are both modern and western in style. The palace is comprised of a variety of architectural styles, including natural cryptomeria wood, painted wood, and stucco. The Changing of the Royal Guard, in front of DaeHanMun (no. 104), is a very popular event for many visitors.

Unlike other palaces, some western style buildings, gardens, and fountains were included in its design. For instance, W[S]ooOkHen (no. 114), designed by Ukrainian architect Afanasii Ivanovich Seredin-Sabitin (1860-1921), was rebuilt in stone to replicate western palatial structures after a fire in 1904 and renamed JoongMyungJun. Emperor GoJong (1852-1919) moved to this palace in 1897 and stayed until his death in 1919.The Imperial Cabinet signed the Japan-Korea Protectorate Treaty in 1905 in this building, which served as the Emperor's formal office during the last years of his reign. In addition, the imperial family photo (the first unnumbered photo of the album), was taken in this building in 1919.

JongMyo (종묘), Royal Tombs & Kings’ Calligraphy: 28 Pictures (nos. 115-124; [125-142])

Image of The general view of JongMyo (no. 115)
The general view of JongMyo (no. 115)

JongMyo was founded by King TaeJo (r. 1392-1400) in 1394 as a Confucian shrine (no. 115), and was dedicated to the memory of deceased kings and queens of the Yi Dynasty (1392–1897). It is regarded as the oldest royal Confucian shrine and is the largest wooden building in the dynasty. The shrine is located near the ChangGyeongGung Palace.

The album contains the calligraphies of 13 kings (nos. [125-142]). The handwritings of successive kings of the Joseon Dynasty were published as YulSungEoPi  (열성어필), on woodblocks in 1723 or 1725.  It includes the handwriting of 13 kings: TaeJo, UnJong, SeJo, SeongJong, InJong, MyeongJong, SeonJo, WonJong, InJo, HyoJong, HyeonJong, SukJong, and GyeongJong.