A little Seoul in Logan Circle

Al Kamen
Columnist September 18, 2012

The South 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 lawyer Timothy Jenkins , former acting head of the University of the District of Columbia.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

The Korean media have 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-square-foot 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 this month in Vladivostok, Russia, 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 Phelps House in Logan Circle. Its owners say it’s under contract to buyers from South Korea. (Courtesy of the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea)

The Koreans say Phelps House, which they bought from Sevellon A. Brown, Phelps’s son-in-law, 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, Timothy’s wife, told the Loop. That was 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 indeed 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.

A spokesman said the embassy does not intend to re-install an ambassador but might use the building as a cultural center and museum.

D.C. records show the property is currently appraised for $1.65 million, but we suspect it’s being sold for substantially more than that. Settlement is expected before the end of the year.

An O’Reilly replacement?

Buzz on the Hill has it that the nomination of Rear Adm. James Syring to head the Missile Defense Agency may be voted out of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the next few days for a possible confirmation vote before the Senate takes off at the end of this week until after the election.

The move would bring to a close the somewhat stormy four-year tenure of Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly , who was sharply criticized by the Pentagon inspector general in a May report that faulted him for an abusive management style.

That’s probably why the agency ranked 223rd out of 224 smaller federal government operations in a “Best Places to Work” survey a couple of years ago by the Partnership for Public Service.

The possibility of a Senate confirmation this week seems a bit swift given the Senate’s somewhat leisurely pace of late on confirming administration nominees. But we were assured that the chamber is treating this as a routine nomination, just moving it along before adjournment.

One factor in favor of that scenario is that Syring is hardly an unknown commodity. He’s said to be well respected in defense circles and is the Navy’s program executive officer for integrated warfare systems. If confirmed, Syring, now a one-star, would get two more stars as a vice admiral.

A factor working against that timetable is that, with the Senate these days, you just never know.

With Emily Heil

Research maven Alice Crites contributed to this column.

The blog: washingtonpost.com/intheloop. Twitter:@InTheLoopWP.

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