메인메뉴 바로가기본문으로 바로가기



Hotels as Witnesses to Korea’s Modern History

Once the first Western style hotels opened up around the treaty port at Incheon in the late 19th century, more began to appear centered around the Jeong-dong area of Seoul. In the early days, these hotels were spaces where Western culture proliferated and was embraced. But they also served as a backdrop to many painful events in Korea’s turbulent modern history.

© Seoul Museum of History
© National Folk Museum of Korea

Born as spaces of oncoming modernity, Korea’s earliest hotels first appeared around the newly opened port at Incheon. The diplomats, missionaries, entrepreneurs and travelers who arrived at the treaty port needed somewhere to stay before proceeding to Seoul.

The first Western style hotel to begin business after the Incheon port was opened to trade was the Daebul Hotel, run by a Japanese man named Kyutaro Hori. A three-story Western-style building right beside the Japanese Dai-Ichi Bank, it was a stopping place for almost all travelers who passed through the city. This is where the American missionary Henry G. Appenzeller, founder of Pai Chai Hakdang (present-day Pai Chai High School), stayed when he arrived in Joseon in 1885.

Right beside the Daebul Hotel was the Steward Hotel, run by a Chinese man named Yi Tae who had worked as a butler for a U.S. legation; this was where British explorer Isabella Bird Bishop stayed when she visited Joseon in 1894.

With the 1899 opening of the Gyeongin Railway bet-ween Incheon and Seoul, these treaty port hotels gradually fell into decline. Most travelers headed to Seoul could now transfer straight onto the train without staying overnight in Incheon. Once the Gyeongin Railway was fully operational, the Station Hotel, run by a British man named W. H. Emberley, opened in 1901 in front of the terminus station at Seodaemun. This was also the starting point of the streetcar route running through the city that had opened in May 1899.

Hotels also began to thrive in Jeong-dong, where Gyeongun Palace (now known as Deoksu Palace) was located. As Joseon pushed ahead with enlightenment policies in the 1880s, Jeong-dong was transformed into an international area where diplomats, Christian missionaries, foreign advisors and entrepreneurs from various countries resided.


Inside the exhibition hall built on the site of the Daebul Hotel, the first Western-style hotel in Korea. Located in Incheon, the hotel flourished in the treaty port era of the city but gradually fell into decline and was demolished in the late 1970s. The exhibition hall, operated by the Incheon Jung-gu Cultural Foundation, was opened in 2018 to mark the historical value of the hotel.
© Incheon Jung-gu Culture Foundation

Showroom for Modern Civilization
Westerners first came to live in the area after the signing of the United States-Korea Treaty in 1882 and the subsequent establishment of the American legation in May 1883 by Lucius Har wood Foote. In turn, various other nations built Western-style legation buildings on a huge scale to show off the might of their native lands, forming a Legation Street. As modern educational facilities, hospitals and shops opened up there, the Jeong-dong area soon became a showroom of modern Western civilization.

The Jeong-dong area grew even more prominent from 1897, when Emperor Gojong redeveloped Gyeongun Palace to reflect his proclamation of the Korean Empire (1897-1910) as a modern sovereign nation. Pushing ahead with modernization policies, Gojong employed around 200 Western advisors, from high-ranking advisors in each government department to specialists in maritime customs, electricity, streetcars, telegraph communications, mining, railways and so on.

Most of these advisors lived in Jeong-dong, and along with diplomats and missionaries made up the foreigner community of the Korean Empire. Through his interactions with them, Emperor Gojong soon embraced aspects of Western civilization. Bringing electricity and telecommunications into the palace and enjoying coffee and champagne, he rapidly adapted to a Western lifestyle. When he held banquets for foreign diplomats at the palace, they were catered in formal French style and Antoinette Sontag (1838-1922) was brought in to take care of hospitality for the guests.


When French hotelier J. Boher took over the Sontag Hotel in 1909 he issued a postcard with a color photograph of the building.
© National Folk Museum of Korea

Sontag Hotel
A German woman born in France, Antoinette Sontag came to Korea when her brother-in-law, Karl Ivanovich Weber (1841-1910), was appointed Russian consul general to Korea in 1885. She stayed in the country for 25 years before returning to Europe in 1909.

Korea anticipated support from America and Russia in order to defend its sovereignty from Chinese and Japanese encroachment, and it was in these circumstances that Sontag gained the emperor’s trust as she introduced Western-style cuisine and social intercourse to the palace and became a prominent figure on the social scene. The Chongdong Club, a political faction comprising pro-American and pro-Russian figures, famously held gatherings in her home.

Around 1902, the Sontag Hotel was constructed west of the palace to serve as the private hotel for the imperial family, accommodating all guests of state. More than just accommodation, the hotel was a modern venue for socialization where travelers, foreign diplomats and Westerners living in Seoul met to drink coffee and talk.

Following the Russo-Japanese War, the Sontag Hotel suddenly became the backdrop to several painful historical events. In November 1905, Ito Hirobumi stayed there while maneuvering to dispossess Korea of its sovereignty. Sontag had taken a year’s leave and Emma Kroebel, another German woman, played host to Hirobumi and wrote an account of the significant historical events she witnessed from the summer of 1905 to the autumn of 1906. It was also Kroebel who oversaw the reception of Alice Roosevelt, daughter of the American president Theodore Roosevelt, when she visited Seoul at Emperor Gojong’s invitation right before Hirobumi’s visit. Hoping for American support, Gojong entertained Alice Roosevelt’s party in grand fashion, but the Taft-Katsura Agreement had already been signed in Tokyo, whereby the United States promised to back Japan.

Despite earnestly forming diplomatic relationships and embracing Western-style food and social culture in hopes of gaining support from Western powers, Gojong did not receive their aid when it was needed most. The Sontag Hotel, once the center of Westerners’ social activity in Jeongdong, gradually lost its importance.

Witness to History
The Railway Hotel opened in Gyeongseong (present-day Seoul) in 1914. It was designed and directly managed by the railway bureau of the Japanese Government-General following the forced annexation of Korea. Its official name was the Chosun Hotel and the initial plans for the building were drawn up by the German architect Georg de Lalande. Planning to invade mainland China, the Japanese authorities built the hotel in the capital, at the mid-way point of a direct train route that went through the Korean peninsula and on to Manchuria. They anticipated increased demand for accommodation in Gyeongseong as railway passengers arriving from Japan sought to break their long journey after departing from Busan.

The site of the Railway Hotel included Hwangudan, an altar to heaven that Gojong built in 1897, when he ascended to the position of emperor, to show the world his orientation toward a modern sovereign nationhood. However, having the Korean Empire, the Japanese authorities demolished Hwangudan and constructed the Railway Hotel on the very spot that symbolized Korea’s will to modernize on its own terms.

In this way, hotels in Korea’s modern history were a vehicle for the diffusion and acceptance of Western culture following the opening up of ports, and later also bore witness to the history surrounding the plunder of national sovereignty.

Suh Young-hee Professor of Modern Korean History, Tech University of Korea


전체메뉴 닫기