It was almost the summer of 1905 when the Minneapolis Journal published a brief paragraph describing a local designer’s new endeavor in East Asia. Edwin Parker Overmire (1864-1905), a successful American Midwestern architect who had worked in the office of Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), had begun drawing plans for a Presbyterian church in Seoul.1 A prolific designer in his own right, Overmire penned at least seventy different building plans between 1899-1905 alone.2 Most of these were residences. However, churches, shops, and a hotel were also mentioned. The Minneapolis-based architect was concerned with the “practical problems of building” and wrote a great deal in architectural journals — particularly in connection with the issue of fireproofing.3 However, he also wrote about his experiences in Massachusetts, reviews of trade events, and opinions on aspects of the building professions.4 Though he was known for his residences, he also became one of the first to implement E. V. Johnson’s patented hollow tile flooring system, which he had planned for use in the Asbury Hospital in Minneapolis.5
To be clear, Overmire had little to do with designing anything outside of Minnesota or Massachusetts, making his church design for the Presbyterians at Seoul an unusual departure from his regular work. Overmire, being so involved in writing about architecture and frequently mentioned in local print media, was clearly active in his community. It was his connections to others in this community that surely led to his Seoul church design. Specifically, a building contractor named W. O. Clark may have ultimately linked Overmire to the church project. Not only was W. O. Clark named in the news report about the church, but his son, Presbyterian missionary Charles Allen Clark (1877-1961), was in pastoral charge of the congregation for whom Overmire was designing the building.6 The news of this church was printed on May 27, 1905 in at least two different American publications, offering a few details on the building. The plan was reportedly for a $50,000 building of “native brick and stone”, though much of the other material was meant to be imported from the United States.7 The building was being designed for the Seoul Central Presbyterian Church (Seungdong Church) congregation.
The timing of the report was somewhat odd given that new church facilities were already being erected for them that summer.8 Taking the form of vernacular Joseon architecture, this new construction was a comparatively humble project and clearly not the work of Overmire. It was presumably finished by the beginning of August, at which time the Seoul Central congregation reportedly moved in.9 Construction was supervised by Charles Allen Clark himself and, given the nature of the building and the congregation, could have been erected by the local church members.10
C. A. Clark’s knowledge of building matters was learned through working with his father.11 W. O. Clark was a noteworthy building contractor in Minneapolis, and his frequent mention by newspapers may suggest he was fairly involved in the local community. For example, in 1897 he reportedly placed a bid for building public toilets at Minnehaha Park.12 In 1900, he also put in a bid for the construction of a new Masonic temple, of which he appears to have been a member at one point.13 In 1901, he was granted building permits for two wood frame residences at 3342 Park Avenue and 3342 Polk Street NE, implying he was able to build with different kinds of materials.14 Some of his built works include the Van Cleve School, completed in 1894, and a strip of thirty-seven red brick and brown stone apartment flats dubbed the “The Emery,” completed in 1895. The Van Cleve School was a fairly large brick building, while the Emery had the latest in plumbing and amenities, not to mention that it was designed with “deadened” shared walls and floors – unusual for the time.15
Given his experience with construction, it wasn’t long after arriving in Korea that C. A. Clark began serving as a building advisor to the Presbyterian mission on their property committee. This he took on in addition to typical missionary tasks. According to his own memoirs, Clark claimed to have “had something to do with the erection of every building in the [Presbyterian] Mission over a period of 30 years.”16 Some of this involved managing the legalities of “possibly a million dollars worth” of various Presbyterian properties in northern Korea. However, there is evidence indicating he also weighed in on construction matters. In addition to the aforementioned 1905 Seoul Central Presbyterian Church that Clark supervised, he was mentioned in an internal report as assisting missionary William Martyn Baird (1862-1931) in planning the 1912/1913 Union Christian College building at Pyongyang.17 Clark’s diary also indicates he was responsible for having nine Presbyterian mission homes built in what is presently the Yeonji-dong neighborhood of Seoul around 1906, as well as earlier “designing and building” a 1903/1904 home for single missionary women in Jeong-dong, Seoul.18 The redesign of the first Presbyterian hospital at Daegu can also be credited to Clark.19
The Seoul Central Presbyterian Church continued to meet in their smaller vernacular Joseon-style buildings for years, begging the question of what happened to E. P. Overmire’s church plans. One possibility is that his design never saw the light of day, for just a few months after the news report was published on his church design in Korea, Overmire died of illness on September 7, 1905, creating a somewhat narrow margin of time for delivering the plans. However, it is also possible the plans were finished and passed on to Clark, for when the congregation dedicated their new church building on February 16, 1913, the structure shared some of the same characteristics as the church design described in the 1905 news report regarding Overmire.
One characteristic shared between the described 1905 design and the 1913 building is their materiality. The 1905 report indicated the building would be of “native [local] brick and stone” with other materials shipped from the U.S. to Korea. Photos suggest the 1913 building did use brick and stone, and a report regarding the building’s dedication explained the church’s internal materiality. The main floor was “tastefully finished with two shades of Beaver Board”, an early type of compressed wood-fiber wallboard manufactured in Buffalo, New York.20 Beaver Board was generally approached as a panelized system, where each board was itself an almost-finished product that simply required being nailed into the wall. Advertisements in America tended to show Beaver Board in the Arts and Crafts style, presumably as this allowed for the seams of the panels to be hidden by millwork.
There were other factors in the 1913 structure itself that could suggest a professional architect’s involvement. Not only was it a rather large building at the time of its completion, but it featured several large window spans that would have required technical planning. The roof structure was fairly complicated as well, requiring a practical understanding of engineering matters.
There was also the matter of two Methodist leaders appearing at the building’s dedication in 1913.21 While it was not uncommon for various denominations to work together on the mission field in Korea, the fact that it was specifically those from the two Methodist denominations that came to speak at the ceremony serves as a potential link back to Overmire, for he himself was a member of the Methodist church and designed Methodist buildings in Minnesota. It would not be unreasonable to suspect that, through the Clarks and the Presbyterians, Overmire and the Methodists were connected to the church building.
While these factors, taken as a whole, may form a persuasive argument for Overmire being the 1913 building’s architect, they unfortunately offer no conclusive answer to the question of who designed the structure. To be sure, there remains the possibility that Charles Allen Clark planned the 1913 building. Though there is no known evidence directly indicating Clark was involved in its construction, it seems unlikely that he would not have been. Not only was he a builder and the pastor in charge of Seoul Central Presbyterian Church, but he is known to have had opinions on what could be called church environment design. These opinions were printed in his Korean text on Pastoral Theology [Moksa Chibop], which included his thoughts regarding the church environment. With regard to the aforementioned engineering points, Clark may have been able to handle this himself given his experience and the large buildings his father completed. In light of the fact that there were only a handful of missionary-builders in Korea at the time anyway, Clark would have been a reasonable choice for handling the building, regardless of whether it was built on Overmire’s plan or something penned by Clark. Furthermore, the building’s construction was only mentioned as being “under way” in relation to Clark’s return from furlough around August-September 1912, possibly implying he was needed for construction.22
The argument for Overmire being the designer of the 1913 building becomes less convincing in light of three other points. The first is the issue of the reported cost of Overmire’s church design. While this could have been a misprint involving one too many zeros, the 1905 newspaper report indicated it was to be a $50,000 building – an unimaginable sum by Christian mission architecture standards in Korea, particularly a locally funded church. The 1913 building was reportedly completed for just 4500 yen, or roughly 2000 to 2500 USD.23 Secondly, there is the matter of the building footprint. The 1905 news report called for an 88×80 building, or 7040 square feet. However, the 1913 building, which still stands today in Insa-dong, was originally built at about 4500 square feet. An expansion to the 1913 structure in 1958 brought it closer to the 88×80 footprint mentioned in the 1905 news report.24 Lastly, the church reportedly had a unique feature in the form of partition walls that could be moved around in the main room (sanctuary). These partitions were located beneath the galleries (interior balconies) and could be used to close off the space under the galleries to form Bible classrooms. When unused, the partitions would swing up into the ceiling (underside of the galleries). Such a feature seems unlikely to have been designed by a professional Western architect (Overmire) and is reminiscent of certain vernacular Joseon buildings that featured ceiling-hung swinging doors/windows.25
Without more information, the possibilities as to how the 1913 church building came to be are numerous. Perhaps Clark even took Overmire’s plan and modified it, as he had done with architect Henry Bauld Gordon’s designs.26 Unfortunately, known Presbyterian publications from the period are mostly silent on the details of the church building’s construction. This could be due in part to the fact that the building was largely funded by the congregation itself in Korea, perhaps making it more of a local endeavor than other mission projects that received international funding and, subsequently, greater coverage in Presbyterian print media.
Adding to the building’s mystery is a change to the roof structure that might have occurred before the 1958 expansion. In a photo from the 1950s, the church’s altered roof is visible behind the bombed out shell of the Seoul YMCA building. The question of why the roof changed remains unanswered.
In summary, while the story of Seungdong Church remains partially untold, there are several points of interest in the sources presented here regarding architecture and building in Korea. Not only are there clues suggesting either Overmire, Clark, or both, were perhaps responsible for the planning of the building, but the church building, with its Western design and American wallboard, stands as another interesting example of American influence on the Korean cityscape. The church is easy to find when walking around Insa-dong at 종로구 인사동길 7-1, or Jongno-gu Insadong-gil 7-1.
The author is grateful for the photograph of Edwin Parker Overmire provided by his great grandson, Laurence Overmire. For more on Charles Allen Clark, Donald Clark’s Living Dangerously in Korea offers much information about his life and various other experiences in Korea.
Footnotes and Citations
1 “Building Operations,” The Minneapolis Journal, May 27, 1905. Library of Congress.; Also, for more on Overmire’s personal life, his great grandson, Laurence Overmire, has written a good overview on Find A Grave.
2 Reports in various issues of the Improvement Bulletin, a consolidated building trade newspaper, between 1899-1905 frequently mention E. P. Overmire and his designs. HathiTrust Digital Library.
3 This claim was made in a small obituary printed by Fireproof Magazine. It also claimed Overmire designed a $50,000 church in Siam, which appears to have been a mistake judging from earlier reports in 1905 of Overmire designing the church in Korea. “Edwin Parker Overmire,” Fireproof Magazine 7, no. 4 (October 1905), 125-126. Cornell University, HathiTrust Digital Library.
4 The Western Architect, for which Overmire served as an associate editor, contained several interesting essays written by Overmire on these topics between 1902-1904. Specifically, for his time as a draftsman in Boston, see “A Draftsman’s Recollection of Boston,” The Western Architect 3, no. 2 (February 1904), 18. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
5 Peter B. Wight, “The Johnson System of Floor Construction,” The BrickBuilder 11, no. 10 (October 1902), 214-217. California State Library.
6 Presbyterian records indicate Charles Allen Clark was in sole pastoral charge of the church from April 1, 1905. Minutes and Reports of the Twenty-First Annual Meeting of the Korea Mission of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A (Yokohama: Fukuin Printing Company, 1905), 62-63. Princeton Theological Seminary Library.
7 “Building Operations,” The Minneapolis Journal, May 27, 1905. Library of Congress.
8 The photos in figure 5 of this essay suggests there was more than one building at the church site. Furthermore, the mention of a book room and a boys’ school at the central church site may suggest the church property here had more than one building. However, it is also possible all functions – such as keeping books and having a boys’ class at school – were held in a single building. Minutes and Reports of the Twenty-First Annual Meeting of the Korea Mission of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A (Yokohama: Fukuin Printing Company, 1905), 62-63.
9 C. A. Clark, “Seoul Central Church,” The Korea Mission Field 2, no. 11 (September 1906), 213-214. Princeton Theological Seminary Library.
10 Donald N. Clark, Living Dangerously in Korea (Norwalk, EastBridge 2003), 26.; Note that it wasn’t uncommon for the congregation of a small church to help with the labor of erecting a new building.
11 Donald N. Clark, Living Dangerously in Korea (Norwalk, EastBridge 2003), 6.
12 “Up On Lowry Hill,” The Minneapolis Tribune, April 3, 1897, 7. Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub.
13 “The Contract Let,” The Post and Record, June 29, 1900. Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub.; “Fraternal Assemblies,” The Minneapolis Tribune, December 24, 1893, 8. Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub.; “Order of Eastern Star,” The St. Paul Globe, May 11, 1900, 8. Library of Congress.
14 The Minneapolis Journal, May 11, 1901, 12. Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub.
15 “The Flat of Flats,” The Minneapolis Tribune, October 6, 1895, 23. Minnesota Digital Newspaper Hub.
16 Charles Allen Clark, Memories of Sixty Years (1954), 250. Manuscript located in “Missionaries – Clark, Charles Allen” in the Korea Missionary Files subseries of the Moffett Korea Collection. Princeton Theological Seminary Library.
17 William M. Baird, “Personal Report of W. M. Baird for the year 1910-1911,” 4. Typewritten script located in “William M. Baird station, institutional, and personal reports, 1891-1931,” in William M. Baird Papers, RG 173, Box 1, Folder 9; Presbyterian Historical Society.; Also see the following article for more about the Union Christian College building – Nate Kornegay, “The Bairds’ Contributions to Building Design in 1910s Pyongyang,” Transactions 95 (2021), 26-35.
18 The author, Donald N. Clark, has indicated this information was sourced from C. A. Clark’s diary. Donald N. Clark, Living Dangerously in Korea (Norwalk, EastBridge 2003), 117.; Note that it is my opinion that at least eight of these residences in Yeonji-dong (the ninth being Clark’s own house) may have been built using the house plans designed by Henry Bauld Gordon. See Nate Kornegay, “The Architecture of Henry Bauld Gordon in Korea (1899-1905),” Colonial Korea (July 9, 2020).
19 C. A. Clark to A. J. Brown, 19 July 1907. Microfilm copy. Samuel H. Moffett
Manuscript Collection, Princeton Theological Seminary Library.; Also, see Nate Kornegay, “Building the Daegu Hospital (1903-1907): A Study on the Construction and Design of Western-Korean Hybrid Architecture,” Transactions 94 (2020), 69-83.
20 “Notes and Personals,” The Korea Mission Field 9, no. 4 (April 1913), 80-81. Princeton Theological Seminary Library.; Note that Beaver Board was also manufactured in Canada at some time.
21 These were Elmer M. Cable, who was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church mission, and Robert A. Hardie, a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. “Notes and Personals,” The Korea Mission Field 9, no. 4 (April 1913), 80-81. Princeton Theological Seminary Library.
22 “Evangelistic Work in Seoul Station,” The Korea Mission Field 8, no. 9 (September 1912). Princeton Theological Seminary Library.
23 See “Notes and Personals,” The Korea Mission Field 9, no. 4 (April 1913), 80-81. Princeton Theological Seminary Library.; Also another report indicates that while the building was under construction, the Korean congregants had pledged over 2000 in gold, which more or less falls in line with the 4500 yen number. “Evangelistic Work in Seoul Station,” The Korea Mission Field 8, no. 9 (September 1912). Princeton Theological Seminary Library.
24 Seo Jae Yeol, “Chanranhan Bukeumui Kkoch Piwossdeon Seungdong Gyohoe,” Reformed News (February 20, 2021). Accessed at http://www.reformednews.co.kr/9419
25 There are many vernacular Joseon structures that have used partitions that swing up and are suspended in the ceiling. A royal example in Seoul is Yeonghwadang at Changdeokgung. Farther south just outside Gyeongju is another example called Changeunjeongsa, located in Yangdong Village.; “Notes and Personals,” The Korea Mission Field 9, no. 4 (April 1913), 80-81. Princeton Theological Seminary Library.
26 See Nate Kornegay, “Building the Daegu Hospital (1903-1907): A Study on the Construction and Design of Western-Korean Hybrid Architecture,” Transactions 94 (2020), 69-83.