SEOUL, South Korea – Five years after being torched by a disgruntled elderly man, the stone and wood southern gate to the old walled capital of Seoul has been painstakingly restored to its late 14th Century glory by a small army of master craftsmen using traditional tools.
From the hand-carved stones of the walls flanking Sungnyemun gate, to the finely wrought details painted on the inner beams of the graceful, upwardly curving roof, each detail of what's considered the country's top treasure is meant to harken back to the day the gate was completed in 1398. On the ceiling beneath the center archway there are two large, whiskered and horned dragons, rendered in vibrant yellow, green, blue, pink and orange scales.
Ahead of its public opening Saturday, reporters on Monday got an advance tour of the gate, where royal officials of the Joseon Dynasty unveiled policies, offered prayers for rain and hung the heads of executed criminals.
The two-story pavilion stands in vivid contrast to the surrounding glass-and-steel skyscrapers and the bustling, traffic-choked streets that radiate from the gate into a city that has seemed to be in a perpetual building frenzy since emerging from the rubble of the 1950-53 Korean War.
A team led by master carpenters, tile makers, stone carvers, blacksmiths and painters labored to restore the gate — work that officials say could have taken one to two years using modern tools and methods.
Instead, workers trimmed timber with axes and chisels, hammered massive stones into shape, fired handmade roof tiles in kilns before affixing them to the roof using traditional tools and worked in as much of the surviving original timber as possible. Workers even wore traditional Korean clothing, regardless of the weather.
"Traditional methods guarantee a more natural and authentic look, whereas machines produce a glossy but artificial feel," said Choi Jong-deok, a government official who oversaw the project until earlier this year.
The gate, also known as Namdaemun, was destroyed in February 2008 by a man angry over the way the government handled a dispute with him over land. The arsonist is serving a 10-year prison term. The fire destroyed 90 percent of the gate's upper floor and 10 percent of its lower floor, Seoul's Cultural Heritage Administration said.
The loss of the gate in a massive, manmade fire shocked South Koreans, many of whom have a deep emotional attachment to Sungnyemun and view it as the public face of their architectural heritage. The gate, earlier renovated in the 1960s, is a staple in government and business publications promoting visits to South Korea.
The restoration cost 25 billion Korean won ($22.5 million), officials said. It has been fitted with heat and flame detectors, alarms, sprinklers and 18 CCTVs.
AP writer Sam Kim contributed to this report.
Follow Foster Klug on Twitter at twitter.com/APKlug