Wongudan Altar in Seoul

For me, Seoul Plaza is the true heart of the city. Sure, the motley bunch of buildings that surround it point in virtually every direction, but while it’s not an urban planning masterpiece, there’s just something special about the oval lawn in the middle of it all.

Side by side images, to the left is a black and white historical picture showing the Wongudan Altar opposite a large building with the city in the background. On the right is a modern picture showing it as a three story building, with traditional Korean roofing, red pillars and stone steps going up, with grass in the foreground and blue sky behind.

The Plaza is best known for City Hall, several hotels and the front gate of Deoksugung palace (덕수궁) .

But it’s also the site of a much lesser known attraction, the Wongudan Altar (원구단). From the street, all that’s visible is a colorful traditional gate that was recently restored.

But up the stairs behind it, hidden on the grounds of the Westin Chosun Hotel is a reminder of the short-lived Daehan Empire.

The turn of the 19th to the 20th century was a tumultuous time in Korea. The 500-year Joseon Dynasty was weak and King Gojong and Queen Myeongseong were doing their best to fend off the imperial designs of several world powers.

When China fell to the Japanese in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, Gojong calculated it was time to assert Korea’s full independence from its traditional ally.

To that end, he proclaimed himself emperor of the Daehan Empire in 1897. And with that title, Korea had its own Son of Heaven as a counterpart to the one in Beijing. And as Son of Heaven, it was appropriate for Korea to have its own Wongudan Altar in Seoul.

The Wongudan Altar, which is also known by several other names, was where the newly promoted Emperor Gwangmu performed the rite of heaven to ensure a bountiful harvest.

Similar ceremonies had been performed on and off since Korea’s Three Kingdoms period in the first millennium, but during the Joseon era the practice was generally abandoned to avoid offending the Emperor of China.

But at the turn of the century, Gojong erected the altar and performed the ceremonies that symbolized Korea’s autonomy from China.

At its height, Wongudan Altar was comprised of a three-story, covered granite altar used for animal sacrifice, a water fountain and an 8-sided, 3-level altar called Hwanggungu (황궁우), or the “Yellow Palace Shrine.”

Sadly, the granite altar and most of the original complex was destroyed by the Japanese colonial government in 1913 in what was a not-so-subtle reminder of Korea’s lost sovereignty.

Thankfully, Hwanggungu remains, and the gorgeous wood structure built in 1899 sits atop a granite base guarded by over a dozen stone fire-eating haetae creatures. There’s also an attractive stone and tile gate that leads to the hotel.

Also located on site are three stone drums carved with an elaborate dragon pattern in relief.

Crafted in 1902 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Gojong’s ascension to the throne they provide great examples of Joseon-era sculpture. Both the drums and the altar are surrounded by a modest park, whose perimeter is lined by high-rise towers.

Although the Wongudan Altar is an unfamiliar site to most tourists, and even residents, for that matter, it’s a popular attraction for guests of the Westin Chosun Hotel, which was built after the Joseon Gyeongseong Railroad Hotel was demolished in 1968.

Some have even proposed that the current hotel be demolished so that the altar complex can be restored…but that seems like a very unlikely proposition.

Nevertheless, what remains of the Wongudan Altar is a worthy destination all by itself.

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About Matt Kelley

Matt Kelly is native of the US Pacific Northwest and is half-Korean by ethnicity. He lived in Korea for five years and has written hundreds of travel guides for Wallpaper, TimeOut, the Boston Globe and Seoul Magazine and was a host for several different variety shows on Korean radio and television.

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