By Shim Sun-ah
SEOUL, April 29 (Yonhap) -- The ancient gate destroyed in an arson attack more than five years ago will officially open to the public with a ceremony this weekend, officials said Monday.
The Cultural Heritage Administration said it will hold a ceremony to mark the completion of the restoration of Sungnyemun, also known as Namdaemun meaning "south gate" in Korean, at 2 p.m. on Saturday at the site in central Seoul.
The nation's No. 1 treasure was one of the four gates that protected Seoul, the then capital of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
Severely damaged in the arson attack by an elderly man in January 2010, the gate underwent restoration with the participation of the nation's top-notch master carpenters and craftsmen, including those named intangible cultural treasures.
The administration said the gate made of stone and wood was restored to resemble its original form when it was first built in the late 14th century.
For this, the restoration team conducted historical and investigative research in order to repair the national treasure using traditional building materials and techniques. They fired hand-made roof tiles in a traditional kiln and used traditional instead of artificial paints for the dancheong, the multi-colored Korean decorative coloring, according to officials.
The walls on both sides of the gate, which were demolished during the 1910-1945 Japanese colonial rule over Korea, have been rebuilt as well.
The team also broadened the width of the stairway on its east side and lowered the ground around it by 30 to 50 centimeters in an effort to restore the gate to its original shape, officials said.
Despite the restoration, the gate's value as a national treasure remains intact, according to experts.
"Many people think Sungnyemun was totally burnt down in the fire, but that's a misunderstanding," said Park Eon-kon, architecture professor at Seoul's Hongik University who headed the advisory group for the project. "Only part of it was destroyed."
The restoration team actually reused some of the blackened logs from the original building while materials that were not reusable were preserved for study or exhibitions.
"The gate's value as a national treasure remains intact because what we did was 'restoration,' not 'reconstruction' for recreating what has been lost," he said.
"I did my best for the restoration project," Shin Eung-soo, a 71-year-old master carpenter who took charge of the carpentry work for the project, said, proudly pointing to the structure restored to its former splendor.
"With this restoration project as an occasion, I hope all people in the country will pay more attention and love to their national heritage," he said.
Lee Eui-sang, a 72-year-old mason who participated in the project, said the government's plan to restore Sungnyemun in a traditional way perplexed him at first.
"I didn't know what to do because all the tools used by the nation's traditional masons disappeared in the middle of 1970s," he said. So, he had to travel around the country in search of old tools.
"The past three years that I participated in the Sungnyemun restoration project were the most unforgettable experiences in my 55 years as a mason," he said.
The Sungnyemun restoration project was carried out amid much national interest and support.
The 24.7 billion won (US$22 million) project involved some 35,000 man-days, including scores of historians, field experts and thousands of workers, according to the cultural heritage administration.
After the ceremony, the restored gate will be open to the public every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., except Mondays. The hours will be extended by one hour till 7 p.m. in May, the month it reopens.
On May 4, all four royal palaces -- Gyeongbok, Changdeok, Changgyeong and Deoksu -- and Jongmyo Shrine will be opened for free admission in celebration of Sungnyemun's reopening, the office said.
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