The late Peter Bartholomew at work in the office of his hanok, overlooking the courtyard. Photo: Courtesy Tom Coyner.

Peter Bartholomew, who was found dead in bed at his antique home in Seoul on Wednesday, was renowned Korea-wide for his spirited defense of traditional architecture — often against Koreans themselves.

Pending an autopsy, heart failure is suspected.

After perilous days in the Peace Corps, the American embarked upon a career in marine engineering. In that capacity, he faced different perils: He narrowly avoided being entrapped in what remains the largest-ever Korea-US scandal.

Energetic and voluble, he was a raconteur with a keen sense of humor, but some aspects of his life remained mysterious. 

But above all, he was known nationwide for fiercely advocating for the preservation of Korean traditional cottages, or hanok. This activity — Bartholomew’s  abiding passion — was kindled by personal connections with some of Korea’s last living aristocrats and royals, and direct experience of their homes.

Commandos, mansions and hidden gold

Born in 1945, Bartholomew grew up in upstate New York and spent considerable time in Canada — to the point where his accent dithered between American and Canadian. He mastered French, which became his BA at Hamilton College.

However, his real linguistic achievement would be Korean, which he learned as a Peace Corps volunteer deployed to Korea in 1968. He arrived in Seoul in January — unknowing that the Asian Cold War was about to hit its fiercest peak.

That month, North Korean commandos launched a bloody, but doomed, raid on the presidential mansion, before the US spyship USS Pueblo was seized. At the end of the month, to America’s shock, the communist Tet Offensive was launched across South Vietnam.

Bartholomew, dispatched as an English teacher to Gangwon, in South Korea’s rugged, underpopulated and mountainous northeast, remembered falling asleep to the sound of firefights in the hills, and  witnessed grim sights.

The bodies of infiltrators were displayed outside local police stations and at least one, captured alive, was dangled from a helicopter that overflew the province, as a warning.

But peace held. The American got his first taste of Korean architecture when he assisted local villagers in construction of a school.

Perched on a heavy delivery bicycle he took to touring the backroads during his time off. On one of these trips, he came across a compound of traditional buildings — and decided to enter.

Inside, he chatted with an old woman who he assumed to be a groundkeeper or gardener. The two hit it off.

When she heard of the rough digs Bartholomew was living in, she insisted he move into her compound. She turned out to be an aristocrat connected to the royal family and the owner of the palatial, three-century-old manse, Seongyojang.

Bartholomew took up residence in a fairytale location: A traditional pavilion/home perched over a water-lily pond. For decades after, he would recall the magic of those days.

In return for his board, he did odd jobs around the compound — a de facto apprenticeship in the dying art of traditional craftsmanship.  In winter, visiting the outhouse could be spooky: wolves would come down from the hills.  And he once scared off thieves by pretending to be a ghost.

He won the trust of the matriarch and in talks with her, mastered the high-level Korean spoken by the elite of yore. She even showed him a secret she kept from her spendthrift children: the location of her gold stash (hidden under floorboards).

But in 1970s Korea, there were modern fortunes to be made. After five years of rural Peace Corps duties, the big city beckoned.

Doing business, swerving scandals, selling toilets

Bartholomew moved to Seoul in 1973, a time when South Korea was urbanizing, industrializing and engaging in global trade at a breakneck pace. It was the right place at the right time: The epicenter of the “Economic Miracle.”

Chosen sectors were being incubated; among them, shipbuilding. Bartholomew’s entrée to business was undertaking English and French communications for Miryung Moolsan, a trading, brokerage and shipping company.

He began to build competency in shipbuilding, and worked with foreign, particularly British, consultants. He beefed up his resume with graduate courses in business at Maryland and Sunkyunkwan Universities, and undertook studies in marine engineering in Newcastle, UK.

In this hothouse atmosphere, corruption was rampant. At Miryung Moolsan, Bartholomew worked under Park Tong-sun, a wily operator who would become infamous as the central figure in the “Koreagate”  lobbying scandal — part of which involved US Aid rice being sent to Korea in local shipping.

Bartholomew’s role — if any — is far from clear; what seems more likely is that the vortex sucked him in. With her son at risk of being a fall guy, Bartholomew’s mother lobbied in Washington on his behalf. In the event, though he was subpoenaed, he was not, as far as Asia Times knows, required to appear.

But it was not just “Koreagate;” there were also serious pay disputes with Park. Bartholomew decided to establish, together with Korean and American partners, his own company: Seoul-based Industrial Research and Consulting.

The firm would conduct a range of work, including market entry and representing the US state of Georgia in Korea, but it specialized in ship building, related components and offshore engineering.

One deal involved the sale of toilet units for warships of the Korean Navy. A master networker, the Korean-speaking American struck up high-level contacts in the navy, which would be maintained for decades.

Marine engineering would remain Bartholomew’s core business. At the time of his passing, he was working on a pet project of South Korean President Moon Jae-in: A giant offshore wind turbine farm.

Changdeok Palace is today a tourist attraction, but Peter Bartholomew got to see it when it was still a residence of living (albeit aging) royals. Photo: Tom Coyner

Old school in new Seoul

Bartholomew mixed in high circles.

Thanks to his aristocratic Gangwon connections, he befriended some of the last, aging members of Seoul’s royal family, displaced first by Japanese colonial rule, then by Korea’s post-war status as a republic.

That granted him privileged access to the royals’ private residential compound in Changdeokgung Palace, where he rekindled his love affair with traditional architecture.

But beyond the palace gates, the bulldozers had been unleashed. Modernization was the rage. Developers cleared Seoul’s higgledy-piggledy little alleys and tiny hanok to make way for the steel-and-glass commercial towers and soulless apartment complexes that dominate today’s city.

Koreans of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s flocked to apartments, despising hanok as inconvenient, uncomfortable and old-fashioned.

Not Bartholomew. In 1974, he acquired a large, early 20th century hanok in northern Seoul and later added its neighboring building. He undertook repairs and renovations using traditional methods and materials, and filled it with the Koreana — objects, books and paintings — he had gathered over the years.

“In his living room there are these little ceramic pieces that are original Silla Dynasty [57 BC – 935 AD] pieces,” said Suk Ji-hoon, a historian. “Up to the early 2000s, nobody wanted these things so Peter just grabbed them. Nowadays, they are precious antiques.”

A visiting museum director was astounded by his collection, which she insisted should be in a museum. He differed, seeing the things simply as home furnishings. A friend who once accompanied Bartholomew on a trip to buy cushions, was regaled “with a dissertation, of course, on the design of traditional cushions.”

With Olde Seoul disappearing in a haze of concrete dust, Bartholomew’s home became an island of tradition. It was starkly at odds with local practice.

As Seoulites deserted hanok, surviving cottages became restaurants, cafes and galleries. “Hanok preservation” came to mean either modernizing with entirely new structures, or simply levelling the original and building a completely faux hanok in its place. (Seoul’s so-called “traditional” hanok quarter, Bukchon, is today dominated by reconstructions.)

Few Seoulites live in hanok; those that survive are more likely to be restaurants, galleries of cafes than homes. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

‘Guardian of Hanok’

Bartholomew railed against these trends.  While another foreign hanok activist, Briton David Kilburn, largely operated in English, Bartholomew deployed his ne-plus-alpha Korean to preach the glories of Korea’s fast-disappearing architectural heritage to vernacular media.

He could be fierce: one friend called him “a hanok fundamentalist.”

Even in the genteel confines of the Royal Asiatic Society Korean Branch (RASKB) he would take speakers to task if he felt their architectural efforts were not appropriately authentic. And at a conference, after he had lambasted local practices, a Korean architect screeched at him, “If you feel that way, maybe you should leave Korea!”

His actions were not restricted to advocacy: They extended to self-defense.

Arson of buildings of recalcitrant owners, as well as intimidation and violence by hired goons, are common tactics used by developers clearing sections of cities. Bartholomew deployed a unique defensive shield.

As a favor to the Korean Navy, he offered free lodging, in his home, to ex-sailors who wanted to study in Seoul but could not afford accommodation. This squad of young men — usually, half a dozen — not only assisted in Bartholomew’s various repairs, but granted protection. Their presence allowed him to “sleep calmly at night,” Bartholomew would say.

Even so, on one occasion, he was roughed up. (Kilburn would similarly be hospitalized after being assaulted by a developer.) Staggering home bruised and bloodied, Bartholomew was received by his lodgers. Infuriated, the lads mobbed up, dashed out and repaid the ruffians, with interest.

But Bartholomew’s biggest battle was in the courts. In 2004, a compulsory purchase order was slapped on his home. After a years-long legal grapple, he won the fight against Seoul City, in a case that many saw as unprecedented. Perhaps ironically, he would later win an award from Seoul’s mayor.

He also took to the lectern, particularly for the RASKB, which he led from 2007-2010, and energetically led tours took of Seoul’s palaces, its dwindling hanok ‘hoods and traditional sites further afield.

Due to all this, Bartholomew was dubbed “Guardian of Hanok” by media. The phrase was widely rolled out last week when top-tier dailies and national broadcaster KBS ran obituaries of Bartholomew — a highly unusual honor for an expatriate.

Penises and presidents

In person, Bartholomew was a dynamo, both verbally and physically. 

Upon receiving a call from him, the receiver would have to consider whether to (1) ignore it; or (2) take the call, and write off their morning or afternoon, for Bartholomew was perfectly capable of talking for hours over the phone.

In person, he was equally loquacious — but took ribbing about his garrulousness in good humor.

Even the highest in the land could not constrain him. Invited to join a cultural advisory board by then-President Park Geun-hye, Bartholomew stood and excitedly held forth. Park, unable to utter a word, never again attended a meeting with him.

A great yarner, he insisted that his home was haunted by the ghost of a female suicide. And he was a joker.

He attached a rampant wooden penis — a traditional fertility symbol — to the ceiling of his living room. His ex-navy lodgers, he said, would point it out to their dates, in order to discover if they were curious or shocked.

(Several times during the writing of this article, your correspondent had cause to wonder: How many obituary writers have such rich material to work with?)

Despite being a two-packs-a-day smoker, Bartholomew appeared fit. A keen swimmer, sailor and diver, he enjoyed a possibly unique privilege as a foreign civilian: He was granted access to beaches within the gates of the Korean Navy base at Jinhae, on the south coast, where he spent summer vacations.

 In Seoul, he was constantly all-a-bustle.  He talked of writing books about hanok and about Korea’s royal family, but never got round to them.

Three of his close associates, in his final months, noted that he looked pallid and advised him to get a check-up. Ever busy, he declined.

Peter Bartholomew holds forth. Photo: Tom Coyner

Private Peter

Bartholomew’s  private life was a mystery; an associate of over thirty years said he had never seen him date a female.

It was rumored that a Canadian affair had fizzled when the woman sought to return home; Bartholomew, of course, was unwilling to leave his beloved Korea. Despite whispers of homosexuality, no evidence ever emerged of a male paramour.

His true passion lay elsewhere.

“That house was his true love: He loved Korea and that house was Korea made solid,” said Jennifer Flinn, an American educator. “Nobody has ever pampered their house more than Peter.”

Bartholomew never discussed his family in the US; his only sister pre-deceased him. Since his death, Asia Times understands that three distant relatives have been identified, though whether any will visit Seoul to claim his estate is unknown.

His financial status was also unclear. He maintained a condominium in Vancouver and a “most fab 1936 Buick that took up two parking spaces” which he would drive “like the king of town” according to Diana Underwood, wife of Peter Underwood, Bartholomew’s business partner and associate.

The condo was sold; the car remains in a garage in Vancouver.

Friends say that extensive repairs Bartholomew made to the roof of his home, encompassing his usual demand for authentic materials and worksmanship, cost around 160 million won ($142,000), leaving him cash poor for years, possibly necessitating the condo sale.

He died without a will, leaving the future of his Seoul property, and the antiques within — which have not been valued — cloudy.

The Bartholomew legacy

At time of writing there are hopes that a verbal commitment to divide his estate between the RASKB and the Korean Navy may have been recorded on an interview tape. If that is discovered, and has legal force, Bartholomew’s physical legacy should live on for posterity.  

As for his intangible legacy, friends note his various achievements.

“Nobody had ever won a major lawsuit against City Hall, it was very difficult to get a judge to side with petitioners,” said Steve Shields, current head of the RASKB. “He saved the asset value and the intrinsic value.”

“There are quite a lot of hanok enthusiasts these days, but there is always a line between residents of the house, and craftsmen and artisans,” said Suk.

“Peter was one of the very few who knew how to fix things without actually changing things — that is very rare. What the [government-run] Cultural Heritage Administration is doing, is  changing 40%-60% of everything.”

Whether Bartholomew’s battle will be won is open to question. 

With current hanok “defenders” including groups of prosperous matrons who are unable to tell the different between  an authentic hanok and a modern one, and with Seoul City’s “preservation” subsidies being blatantly used by owners to destroy their cottages and build new ones, this writer would suggest it is a hopeless fight.

Others differ.

“In the last decade or so, there has been an emerging appreciation for traditional Korean things — art, architecture or whatever — and maybe Peter was able to carry it through just long enough that Koreans can now embrace it,” said Underwood. “He has passed the baton.”

A view over part of Seoul’s Bukchon district at sunset. Few of the district’s hanok are authentic. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times