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Auguste Joseph Salabelle: Gojong’s Little-Known French Architect (1888-1891)



UPDATEOctober 12, 2019: This essay is now better described as a collaborative text, having been updated with content provided by both Robert Neff and Jihoon Suk. Their research and assistance is greatly appreciated. See the footnotes for more information.



When Gojong returned to Gyeongbokgung in 1885 after almost a decade of residing in Changdeokgung, he began having foreign architecture added in and around the back section known as Geoncheonggung. One of these buildings was known as Gwanmungak, a white-plastered two-story villa exuding a certain Russian-cum-Italianate quality, featuring airy verandas, pointed classical pediments, Corinthian columns, and Russian onion spires.1 The structure was outfitted with foreign heating stoves and “all other modern appliances”, a nearly-true contemporary Western building in an otherwise traditionally Joseon setting.2 Though Carl Waeber, the Russian consul-general, reportedly drew up the plans for the building, it was Korean customs employee Afanasii Ivanovich Seredin-Sabatin who became credited as the architect and engineer of the villa.3 Alfred Burt Stripling, who also arrived in Korea in 1883 as part of the customs office staff, had been working as “a sort of superintendent of buildings and furniture in the Palace [Gyeongbokgung]” around 1889, perhaps playing some role in the care-taking of Gwanmungak.4 Some of the furniture was, according to the French consul, imported from Germany and sat in storage while the villa was under construction.5

Figure 1. A view of the queen’s quarters in Gyeongbokgung, with Gwanmungak in the background. Source: Maurice Courant, Souvenir de Séoul, Corée (1900), from BnF Gallica.
Figure 2. A view of Hyangwonjeong pavilion with Gwanmungak in the background. Undated, but probably from the 1890s. Source: Moffett Korea Collection, Princeton Theological Seminary Library.

Another building was Jipokjae, a Sino-Korean styled library framed with red and blue Chinese brick on a stone foundation. Its attached timber hexagonal tower, Palujeong, featured elaborate geometric woodwork that visitors admired. A mere twenty or thirty meters away was a three-story neoclassical brick, stone, and clapboard clock tower. All of these are thought to have been constructed between 1888 and 1891, just after the reconstruction of the many Joseon-style palace halls that were previously destroyed or damaged by the 1876 fire.

Figure 3. A view of Palujeong and Jipokjae, photographed by Enrique Stanko Vráz, 1901. Source: Národní Muzeum.
Figure 4. A drawing of the north gate of Gyeongbokgung showing the Western-style clock tower behind a wall. Source: Raoul-Charles Villetard de Laguérie, La Corée, indépendante, russe ou japonaise (Paris: Hachette, 1898), from BnF Gallica.
Figure 5. The clock tower in Gyeongbokgung, photographed in the 1900s. Source: International Center Korea Collection, Gakushuin University.

There was then another building project that reportedly began just as Gwanmungak was being completed. According to Arnold Henry Savage Landor, Gojong had “commissioned a French architect from Japan to construct another palace [hall] on a much larger scale at some distance from the Russian building [Gwanmungak]. The estimates for this new ground structure were far too small, and by the time that the foundations were laid down, the cost already amounted to nearly three times the sum for which the whole building was to have been erected.” Landor continued by claiming that Gojong, who became “disgusted at what he thought to be foreign trickery, but what was really merciless robbery on the part of his own officials, decided to discontinue the new palace, which, in consequence, even now has reached only a height of about three feet above the level of the ground.”6 This account, perhaps somewhat exaggerated, appears to hold some truth. French diplomatic records not only indicate that Gojong hired the French architect, but construction on the palace did begin.

The architect was an individual named Auguste Joseph Salabelle, whom French consul Victor Collin de Plancy was able to find by reaching out to members of the Tientsin branch of the Comptoir d’Escompte de Paris, a then privatized French bank.7 His father was Alfred Xavier Salabelle, a wine merchant who moved between France, Switzerland, England, and China before creating a new life for his family in the melting-pot that was 1870s Yokohama.8 This change was made manifest by Auguste’s father opening an English and French language school — the Bay View House Academy — on lot number 241 of the Yokohama bluff (the site now within present-day Harbor View Park).9 The careers of Alfred Xavier Salabelle’s three sons, including Auguste’s, seem to have been indebted to the language school he started there. Auguste’s brother, Lucien, held various jobs related to teaching, publishing, and commerce, moving around the world not unlike his father. Auguste’s other brother, Pierre Stéphane, similarly worked in publishing in Yokohama before moving to Vietnam for work in the customs office.10

Figure 6. Section of a map of the Yokohama bluff, c. 1890, showing lot 241 where the Bay View House Academy was located. Source: W. E. L. Keeling and A. Fasari, Keeling’s Guide to Japan (Yokohama: Kelly & Walsh, 1890).


Auguste was the eldest of seven children, appearing to have been born in the southeastern French town of Chambéry on March 31, 1856.11 Very little is known of his life, but he might have worked in his father’s Bay View House Academy for a time before somehow becoming involved in architecture. By 1886, various French language journals were listing him as an architect in Yokohama — one that would only do business locally.12 According to one scholar, in 1888 he went to work at Tokyo Imperial University in some connection with renowned architect Josiah Conder.13 After merely a month as an instructor there, his work in Tokyo seems to have come to an end in October 1888.14 One of the reasons for this brief stint could have been his acceptance of the contract to build in Korea. According to Collin de Plancy, Auguste had been hired by December 1888 for the construction of Gojong’s new palace on a yearly salary of three thousand piastres.15 Auguste’s brother, Lucien, could have then played a role in connecting Auguste with Collin de Plancy, having worked as an employee of the Yokohama branch of the Comptoir d’Escompte de Paris in 1884.16

Gojong’s never-completed French palace hall was, by Collin de Plancy’s own account, a result of the Korean monarch’s keen interest in France, particularly its architecture and military. The consul provided Gojong with reading material he had on hand — seven volumes of l’Histoire de France by François Pierre Guillaume Guizot — and wrote to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Paris asking for more illustrated books depicting their country’s national buildings and monuments. “While leafing through the pages of this beautiful book [l’Histoire de France],” Collin de Plancy claimed, “[Gojong] noticed the castles and buildings that are there, as well as the costumes of our soldiers.”17 It is then perhaps little wonder that Auguste Salabelle, a Frenchman, was selected for the job.

Figure 7. A view of the path west of Jipokjae and the back section where Gojong’s foreign-style buildings were being constructed. This path leads away from the north gate of Gyeongbokgung, heading towards the food storage. Photographed by Enrique Stanko Vráz, 1901. Note that this is an opposite view of the sketch from Figure 4. The clock tower was to the left, outside of, this photograph. Also note that Vráz took an alternate photograph from this same vantage point showing the clock tower, which could not be published here. Source: Národní Muzeum.

Construction during the first five months of 1889 were said to have been on track.18 Yet by the time the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Paris had granted Collin de Plancy’s request for more French illustrations in July 1889, the palace project was already having problems.19 In the previous month of June, the French architect reportedly had some issues with his workmen who were unable to complete tasks to his liking. Collin de Plancy’s writings show Salabelle complaining of negligence on the builders’ part, so much so that an incident involving the architect raising his cane towards the workers resulted in rumors of violence at Gyeongbokgung. The Rising Sun and Nagasaki Express reported in a July issue that Salabelle fled for his life after being stoned by his workmen, a claim that de Plancy chalked up to rumors spread by a local unnamed American missionary.20 The consul clarified that there was no stoning, and that one of the builders merely mimicked the throwing of a rock toward Salabelle in response to the architect’s threat.21

By January 1890, another report indicated the project was having issues with the availability of construction materials — an unsurprising problem given the growth of Seoul, Busan, and Chemulpo during this period. Depending on interpretation, the account could also show that imported materials were to play an integral role in the architecture of the new palace hall. To be clear, the same report indicated that due to the lack of necessary materials, an unnamed Japanese contractor was hired to travel to Japan, seek out investors in Tokyo and Osaka, and complete the project in fifteen months. It was said to have been planned as a large, 1080 square meter building on a budget of 71,500 yen.**

With perhaps only its foundations built, the palace project seems to have ended sometime in the first quarter of 1891. In the wake of a financial scam taking place within Gojong’s government, the king asked Auguste Salabelle if he would agree to the termination of his contract. “Our compatriot,” de Plancy wrote, “who in two years had not been able to do a serious job, willingly lent himself to these terms.”22 He was paid his remaining salary, an indemnity, travel expenses, and the matter was closed.23

In his last writings regarding Salabelle, de Plancy called Gojong’s new (European-style) palace buildings at Gyeongbokgung “useless”, a sentiment shared by more than just a few locals.24 While Jipokjae was widely revered — said to have been “the finest building in the peninsula” from that period — the French consul had nothing good to say about Gwanmungak, nor Sabatin’s lack of skills as an unprofessional architect.25 He called the hugely expensive structure one “without character and without style”, claiming its walls and roofs were collapsing during its construction in 1889.26 Perhaps expecting similar setbacks in the unfinished French project, de Plancy accurately predicted in 1889 that Salabelle’s building may run into financial difficulties.27 Chesney Duncan, who previously worked for the Korean customs office, also generally decried its construction, calling Gojong’s new palace buildings “unnecessary and their erection a burden to the State.”28 The account of the wastefully unfinished French-designed palace hall certainly proved Chesney somewhat correct, becoming the last foreign-style building attempted in Gyeongbokgung before Gojong’s move to Gyeongungung [Deoksugung] in 1897.

Auguste Salabelle moved on to French-Indochina sometime after leaving Korea in the spring of 1891, his name appearing in an 1898 directory indicating his position as principal inspector in the Public Works Department of the colonial French government at Phnom Penh, Cambodia.29 (It’s interesting to note that, in 1890, Salabelle was reportedly decorated with the French colonial Royal Order of Cambodia by de Plancy for helping the French community in Korea in some way. How this may or may not have related to his work as an inspector in Cambodia is unclear).* He would appear again around 1912-1913 in a similar position in Vietnam, perhaps meeting his brother, Pierre Stéphane, who had been working as a customs inspector in Haiphong.30 The details of the rest of his life, including his death, remain unknown.

As for what remained of Gojong’s French palace building at Gyeongbokgung, its fate is just as mysterious as the architect that designed it. Perhaps its foundations, if they ever existed in full, were repurposed sometime between then and the various colonial Japanese exhibitions held on the reformed palace grounds. Or maybe the workers only progressed as far as the grading stage. Or perhaps the foundations do still exist today, somewhere near the rear palace sections that contained Gwanmungak, Jipokjae, the clock tower, and the Edison power station. To this day, no archaeological evidence has emerged offering an explanation as to where the hall might have been. However, given Landor’s description of it being a much larger building “at some distance” from Gwanmungak, it is possible either the vacant northeast section of Gyeongbokgung or the vacant section near the food storage was its intended location.

Figure 8. A section of a map of Gyeongbokgung, Bukgwoldohyeong, showing points of architectural interest. The yellow area indicates where the clock tower stood. The purple area, Jipokjae. The red area, where Gwanmungak stood. The green area, where the Edison power plant was built. The purple area, a small Korean pavilion (pictured below). The light blue areas, vacant sections of Gyeongbokgung where Salabelle’s palace could have been located. The NRICH presumes this map to have been made in 1907, of which there were several versions, but it may have been earlier. Source: Bukgwoldohyeong Architecture, National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, 2006.
Figure 9. Top, a photograph of the small Korean pavilion east of Hyangwonjeong, undated. Bottom, a labeled section of Bukgwoldohyeong. The purple circle indicates the pavilion in the above photograph. The black square and white triangle indicate the camera and vantage point of the above photograph. The light blue circle indicates a vacant area that could have been the location of Salabelle’s palace hall, as also indicated in Figure 7. Source: Moffett Korea Collection; and Bukgwoldohyeong Architecture, National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, 2006.
Figure 10. A colonial period map of Gyeongbokgung, circa 1910s-1930s, probably drawn when the 1926 Government-General building was being planned. It shows the clock tower (yellow), Gwanmungak and Geoncheonggung (red), and the power plant (green) all no longer remained. The small pavilion (purple) and Jipokjae (pink) still remained. The possible sites of Salabelle’s palace (light blue) offer more information in this map. The northeastern section appears to have some amount of elevation, leaving plenty of room for speculation as to which site was best. Source: National Library of Korea.
Figure 11. Gyeongbokgung today. Jipokjae (pink) still remains. The small pavilion (purple), however, disappeared. Geoncheonggung was reconstructed, however Gwanmungak (red) remains gone, as does the clock tower (yellow). The foundations of the electric power plant (green) were excavated around 2015. The sites in light blue show where Salabelle might have built his palace. The elevation seen in the northeastern section (Figure 10) is still visible today. The section near the food storage is still vacant. Source: Google Maps.

The accounts of Salabelle may help further our understanding of how different kinds of builders entered early modern Korea, adding to the growing evidence showing the peninsula’s urban centers were not initially reformed by renowned city planners and architects, but by opportunists and unheard-of designers who may have been relying on Korea to further their careers. Like some other Western engineers who were hired for various projects, there are no known records of Salabelle’s earlier built works. Yet, as we’ll read in the next essay, it was in many cases these types of reputation-less builders who played noteworthy roles in the peninsula’s early modernization.



Author’s Note: The assistance of historian Jihoon Suk in better understanding the layout of late 19th century Gyeongbokgung through Bukgwoldohyeong is greatly appreciated. After consulting with Suk on the findings regarding Salabelle, he agrees the light blue sections in Figures 8-11 may be the best guess as to where Salabelle’s palace was meant to be. Suk says the somewhat odd placement of the pavilion in Figure 8, in the northeastern section of Gyeongbokgung, could help indicate something else was meant to be built around there.

It is also my thought that it’s possible the elevation depicted in Figure 9 during the colonial period could be the remaining, however eroded, grading for Salabelle’s palace. Then again, the elevation may have naturally been there in the 19th century — we don’t know exactly what the space looked like then. This is, to be sure, all speculation.

I’d like to also again thank Robert Neff for the valuable research he added to this essay. The story of Salabelle, and Gojong’s palace, is made richer and clearer with this information.

If you have any ideas or want to discuss it, feel free to comment below or use the Contact form!




Footnotes and Citations

1 Arnold Henry Savage Landor, Corea; or, Cho-sen, The Land of the Morning Calm (London: William Heinemann, 1895), 184.
2 Arnold Henry Savage Landor, Corea; or, Cho-sen, The Land of the Morning Calm (London: William Heinemann, 1895), 184. The term “calorifère” is used here to describe the heaters, referring to wood or coal burning stove heaters that were also being used by Westerners.
3 Chesney Duncan Corea and the Powers (Shanghai: Mercury Office, 1889), 19.
4 Stripling worked as the commissioner for the customs office in Chemulpo, arriving in Korea with von Mollendorff in 1883. Quoted from Merrill to Sir Robert Hart, April 9, 1889, as cited in Korea Through Western Eyes. Robert D. Neff and Sunghwa Cheong, Korea Through Western Eyes (Seoul: Seoul National University Press, 2009), 277. Interestingly, General Dye was said to have been living in Hyeopgildang, the east building attached to Jipokjae, for most of 1894-1895. Notes on photograph of Jipokjae, Esther Shields album, Moffett Korea Collection, Princeton Theological Seminary Library.
5 Diplomatic letter Sous Direction de l’Extrême-Orient N° 57 from Victor Collin de Plancy to Minister of Foreign Affairs in Paris, May 12, 1889. Transcript. National History Compilation Committee of Korea.
6 Arnold Henry Savage Landor, Corea or Cho-sen (London: William Heinemann, 1895), 184-185.
7 Diplomatic letter Sous Direction de l’Extrême-Orient № 34 from Victor Collin de Plancy to Minister of Foreign Affairs Goblet, December 10, 1888. Transcript. National History Compilation Committee of Korea.
8 According to one source, Auguste Joseph Salabelle’s youngest brother, Lucien, was born in Shanghai on February 6, 1860, placing the Salabelle family in China by this year. Jean-Michel Piar, Shanghai à la françaíse (Nice: Serre Éditeur, 2005,) 10. For an overview of the Salabelle family, see Meiji Portraits, a website devoted to biographical information on Westerners in Japan during the Meiji period. Using your web browser’s search function is probably the best way to navigate this (long) page to the Salabelle content.
9 The Bay View House Academy in Yokohama appeared in directories by 1879, but it may have been established before this. The Chronicle & Directory for China, Japan, and The Philippines (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Daily Press, 1879), 380.
10 The Chronicle & Directory for China, Japan, Corea, Indo-China, Straits Settlements, Malay States, Siam, Netherlands India, Borneo, The Philippines, &c. (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Daily Press, 1898), 771.
11 This is based on the broader genealogical records website pertaining to Chopin Larribiere, prepared and edited by Danièle Chopin at http://daniele.chopin.pagesperso-orange.fr/ See the section on the Salabelle family, which contains local birth and baptismal records. http://daniele.chopin.pagesperso-orange.fr/fiches/fiche4004.htm#f20023 Last accessed September 7, 2019.
12 Note that in all three of the following journals, the entries were identical, merely mentioning Salabelle as an architect and that he only dealt with local work. See the section Avis Commerciaux on Japon in Le Rappel, November 16, 1886. See the section Avis Commerciaux on Japon in Journal Officiel de la République Française, November 15, 1886.  See the section Avis Commerciaux on Japon in Le Pays: Journal de Volontés de la France, November 25, 1886.
13 Yoshitsugu Hayashi, “The acceptance of French architectural theories and teaching methods in Modern Japan: Theory and education of Jumpei Nakamura,” (PhD. diss., Yokohama National University, 2015), 68.
14 Yoshitsugu Hayashi, “The acceptance of French architectural theories and teaching methods in Modern Japan: Theory and education of Jumpei Nakamura,” (PhD. diss., Yokohama National University, 2015), 68.
15 It is unclear what currency Collin de Plancy was referring to, but it may have been the French Indochinese piastre. Diplomatic letter Sous Direction de l’Extrême-Orient № 34 from Victor Collin de Plancy to Minister of Foreign Affairs Goblet, December 10, 1888. Transcript. National History Compilation Committee of Korea.
16 See Meiji Portraits, a website devoted to biographical information on Westerners in Japan during the Meiji period. Using your web browser’s search function is probably the best way to navigate this page to the Salabelle content.
17 Diplomatic letter Sous Direction de l’Extrême-Orient № 34 from Victor Collin de Plancy to Minister of Foreign Affairs Goblet, December 10, 1888. Transcript. National History Compilation Committee of Korea.
18 Diplomatic letter Sous Direction de l’Extrême-Orient N° 57 from Victor Collin de Plancy to Minister of Foreign Affairs in Paris, May 12, 1889. Transcript. National History Compilation Committee of Korea.
19 Letter from Minister of Public Education and Fine Arts to Minister of Foreign Affairs, July 29, 1889. Transcript. National History Compilation Committee of Korea.
20 Diplomatic letter Sous Direction de l’Extrême-Orient N° 79 from Victor Collin de Plancy to Minister of Foreign Affairs Spuller, October 28, 1889. Transcript. National History Compilation Committee of Korea.
21 Diplomatic letter Sous Direction de l’Extrême-Orient N° 79 from Victor Collin de Plancy to Minister of Foreign Affairs Spuller, October 28, 1889. Transcript. National History Compilation Committee of Korea.; unfortunately, I haven’t been able to access the July 1889 issues of the Rising Sun and Nagasaki Express to check de Plancy’s claims, however a paper in China from the same period appears to have reprinted the same text from the Rising Sun…, see The North China Herald, July 13, 1889.
22 Diplomatic letter Sous-Direction du Nord et de l’Extrême-Orient N° 203 from Victor Collin de Plancy to Minister of Foreign Affairs Ribot, April 30, 1891. Transcript. National History Compilation Committee of Korea.
23 Diplomatic letter Sous-Direction du Nord et de l’Extrême-Orient N° 203 from Victor Collin de Plancy to Minister of Foreign Affairs Ribot, April 30, 1891. Transcript. National History Compilation Committee of Korea.
24 Diplomatic letter Sous-Direction du Nord et de l’Extrême-Orient N° 203 from Victor Collin de Plancy to Minister of Foreign Affairs Ribot, April 30, 1891. Transcript. National History Compilation Committee of Korea. Yun Chi Ho also held a dim view of Gojong’s new palace halls at Deoksugung.
25 Kansas Agitator, August 4, 1899.
26 Diplomatic letter Sous Direction de l’Extrême-Orient N° 57 from Victor Collin de Plancy to Minister of Foreign Affairs in Paris, May 12, 1889. Transcript. National History Compilation Committee of Korea.
27 Diplomatic letter Sous Direction de l’Extrême-Orient N° 57 from Victor Collin de Plancy to Minister of Foreign Affairs in Paris, May 12, 1889. Transcript. National History Compilation Committee of Korea.
28 Chesney Duncan Corea and the Powers (Shanghai: Mercury Office, 1889), 19.
29Mons. A. Salabelle, the French architect, will leave shortly, the Corean Government having wisely decided to abandon its costly schemes of palatial edifices.” The Rising Sun & Nagasaki Express, February 18, 1891, 2. Nagasaki Archives. Transcript courtesy of Robert Neff; and The Chronicle & Directory for China, Japan, Corea, Indo-China, Straits Settlements, Malay States, Siam, Netherlands India, Borneo, The Philippines, &c. (Hong Kong: Daily Press, 1898), 770.
30 Bulletin officiel de l’Indochine française (Année 1912, N°12BIS).
* The Rising Sun & Nagasaki Express, October 1, 1890, 2. Nagasaki Archives. Transcript courtesy of Robert Neff.
** “News from Korea,” Japan Weekly Mail, January 11, 1890, 28. Yokohama History Archives. Transcript courtesy of Robert Neff.

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