500 Capp Street Celebrates Art in Everyday Life

by Jean Schiffman

The late conceptual artist David Ireland’s house has been transformed into a small museum, opening this month.

The late San Francisco conceptual artist David Ireland saw art where most people see the mundane. To Ireland, an objet d’art could be a mason jar filled with sawdust, culled from sanding the floor. Or 16 brooms, in varying states of wear and tear, wired together in a circle. Or clumps of discarded rubber bands.

Ireland’s ultimate masterpiece was his own residence—a modest, 1886 Edwardian-Italianate house on the corner of Capp and 20th streets in the Mission District—and everything in it, from a pair of cane armchairs that he designed, to an ice cream sundae made of poured concrete, to a penciled scribble on a wall.

Ireland died in 2009 at age 78. Six years later, and after a year and a half of renovation, 500 Capp Street, where Ireland lived for 30 years, opens to the public this month.

A clue to the mysteries within: gold lettering on the front window that reads “Accordions, P. Greub.” Ireland bought the house in 1975, for less than $50,000, from its then-owner, a Mr. Greub, who was, yes, an accordion-maker and apparently a bit of a pack rat. Although Ireland intended to transform the building into an art studio/living space, he found himself wanting to preserve not just the structural integrity of the house itself, but everything in it: walls, floors, doors, windows, rooms. And where a less discerning eye might see remnants and rubbish to be discarded, Ireland saw history, stories, a sort of quotidian beauty. For example, he preserved scratches and cracks, including the dents created when he lowered a safe down the staircase, where it crashed twice (the two bruises on the wall are marked with plaques: “The Safe Gets Away for the First Time November 5, 1975”; “The Safe Gets Away for the Second Time November 5, 1975”). In addition to Mr. Greub’s worn-out brooms (“Broom Collection with Boom,” 1978-1988, on loan from SFMOMA), he preserved such household items as a three-legged chair, which he mounted on the wall.

500 Capp Street is now a living installation with a permanent collection of more than 2,500 of Ireland’s artworks (including sculptures of wire and concrete—he made hundreds of spherical “dumbballs” from wet concrete, displayed throughout the house—paintings, drawings, prints, furniture, ephemera, photographs and more); space for live performances and displays by other artists; an artist-in-residence program to begin in 2017 (for practitioners in all the arts, not just visual); a basement study center with archives; lectures and other activities; and small-group, docent-led tours.

To celebrate the small museum’s opening this month, Douglas Dunn + Dancers performs on-site. Choreographer Dunn was Ireland’s frequent collaborator on various projects.

By age 77, Ireland’s health was failing, and he moved to assisted living. He was a renowned San Francisco artist by this time, his works seen at the Smithsonian, SFMOMA, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and elsewhere, and his home had been a gathering place for friends and colleagues as well as the many young artists he encouraged and influenced. For a while, no one was sure what would happen to 500 Capp, but eventually his closest friends decided to put it on the market because Ireland needed the money. Concerned art critic Kenneth Baker wrote in the January 6, 2008 San Francisco Chronicle that John Elderfield, a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, visited the house and expressed hope that a “white knight” would ride in and save it.

The white knight who materialized is art philanthropist Carlie Wilmans, granddaughter of arts benefactor Phyllis Wattis. Wilmans had dropped by 500 Capp Street at the suggestion of Ann Hatch, Ireland’s close friend and advisor. Says Wilmans, “A couple of days later, I called Ann and said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with this, but you can’t let it go on the open market. I’m going to buy it.’” Which she did, for $895,000. Soon after, Wilmans established the 500 Capp Street Foundation, with Hatch and Yale University Art Gallery director Jock Reynolds, also a longtime friend and associate of Ireland, as trustees.

Wilmans did not know Ireland personally before she bought the house and in fact didn’t meet him until after she’d closed escrow in 2008. Then they met there about a half dozen times. “David never said, ‘This is what I would like,’ or anything like that,” says Wilmans. “It was really just he and I wandering around the house as he told stories. He was not the type of artist to say ‘This is what this means, this is what that means.’”

When Ireland first moved into 500 Capp Street, explains Wilmans, as he began stripping wallpaper and paint, the house started to reveal itself to him: places where doors once were, cracks in the walls from damage or earthquakes or the house settling. Rather than fix things, Ireland began sanding and coating the walls and floor with polyurethane, and mining the residue—dust, curls of wallpaper—into his body of work. As Constance M. Lewallen writes in her new book “500 Capp Street,” Ireland believed that art simply occurs in the process of everyday life. Lewallen divides his work into categories: “sculptures made from the detritus of his renovation”; installations that are integrated into the architecture (such as a broken window that Ireland replaced with a sheet of copper, accompanied by a recording in which he describes what was the view from that window); and works that “give new life” to items (“Three-Legged Chair”).

Wilmans was committed to preserving and stabilizing the house in a way that would honor Ireland’s quirky, imaginative sensibility. She hired Jensen Architects, the company that designed SFMOMA’s rooftop sculpture garden, Architectural Resources Group (which restored the murals in Coit Tower) and Oliver & Company, a construction firm with a special affinity for art projects and for Ireland’s work.

To bring the fragile, three-story, 3,552-square-foot house up to safety standards, the first task was to replace the original brick-and-mortar foundation. In an effort that Wilmans describes as akin to changing the pedestal on a priceless sculpture without moving the artwork, the house remained stationary as steel I-beams were slid underneath to provide a new, rock-solid foundation; workers were prohibited from using hammers for fear of causing damage—and they were asked to save the dirt, as Ireland himself would have done, for his collection.

Other changes included installing an elevator, replacing a decrepit back porch and garage and adding a garden of drought-resistant plants.

The floor of the ground-level shop space, now a flex space, is still colorfully paint-speckled, the only changes being cleaned walls, a new layer of high-grade drywall, updated electrical and track lighting. Elsewhere are such curiosities as a jar containing the remains of a cake baked for the 95th birthday of a Mr. Gordon, Ireland’s last tenant at 500 Capp Street; a restaurant-sized jar full of strips of old wallpaper, on a pedestal; little marks on walls made by ink from the back of wallpaper that seeped into the plaster; decals, penciled notes, even the signature of the original proud wallpaper hanger. All are carefully preserved. These walls—varnished to a high saffron gloss—almost literally speak.

A bedroom, its bed festooned with kudu horns; a dark-hued dining room featuring a long, repurposed workbench for a table, where Ireland and friends were known to have had lengthy dinners surrounded by animal skulls and heads and wood carvings from Ireland’s Africa sojourns; a pair of rotating propane torches that serve as a chandelier in one of the rooms: to preserve Ireland’s house, in all its idiosyncrasy and detail and reverence for the history of the everyday, has been a labor of love, says Wilmans, for everyone involved. Just as Ireland inspired many artists in his lifetime, so his home is expected to work its magic on artists, historians and other visitors to 500 Capp Street.

Opens Jan. 15

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