The Korean government, bitterly sparring with Japan over ownership of some ocean islets, is on the verge of reclaiming a stately Logan Circle mansion that it lost to the Japanese in 1910 — after Japan effectively took control of Korea in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese war.
The Koreans, who had used the Victorian building as their embassy for about 20 years, expect to complete the purchase of Phelps House — built in the 1870s by Civil War Navy officer Seth Ledyard Phelps — from prominent local attorney Timothy Jenkins, former acting head of the University of the District of Columbia.
The Korean media has been abuzz over the pending transfer, seeing it as a symbolic righting of a long-standing wrong. (Korean officials even had a television crew and reporters along when Jenkins recently gave a visiting delegation a tour of the 6,300-sq.-ft. home.)
The restoration comes at a time when relations between the two U.S. allies are a bit rocky, with the two countries feuding over ownership of a little group of rocks out in the ocean about 120 miles from the Korean mainland and Japan’s main island. (A visit to one of the islands in August by South Korea’s president doubtless didn’t sit well with Tokyo.)
At a meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she urged both countries to, literally, chill out. She said she told them to make sure “that they lower the temperature and work together in a concerted way to have a calm and restrained approach” to working things out.
The Koreans say Phelps House, which they bought from Phelps’s son-in-law, Sevellon A. Brown, in 1891 for $25,000, according to an embassy fact sheet, was “forcibly taken over by Japan,” which paid the Joseon Dynasty $5 for it in 1910 and then sold it to an American buyer.
The Jenkins family bought the stately manse, which had had a series of private owners and had once been a local Teamsters Union hall, in 1977, Lauretta Jenkins told the Loop — back when the Logan Circle area was besieged by prostitutes and drug dealers.
Korean officials have been coming by, asking them about buying it almost since then, she said, because the Koreans have a “great cultural interest in the property.”
On one occasion years ago, Jenkins said, “a Korean man staked out the house, watching it from across the street.”
“My husband went out to talk to him,” Jenkins said, and the man said he was a senior officer in the Korean army. He said his grandfather had lived there as the ambassador.
Turns out he was a retired Korean army officer — and grandson of the country’s first ambassador, who lived in the home. The family gave him a tour, she said, adding that he was very quiet, almost reverential, as they walked around.
The Jenkins family recently agreed to sell the house — she declined to reveal the selling price — and it’s under contract, pending settlement.
An embassy spokesman said they did not intend to re-install an ambassador, but perhaps use the building as a cultural center/museum.
D.C. records show the property’s currently appraised for $1.65 million, but we suspect it’s likely being sold for substantially more than that. Settlement is expected before the end of the year.