Sam McManis

Discoveries: Artist’s S.F. home becomes art at 500 Capp Street

The front parlor helps set the artistic tone at 500 Capp Street, the onetime San Francisco Mission District house of David Ireland, now a tour site.
The front parlor helps set the artistic tone at 500 Capp Street, the onetime San Francisco Mission District house of David Ireland, now a tour site. lsterling@sacbee.com

Art and life, often barely distinguishable among those who toil in the conceptual realm, meld completely inside the lacquered walls of 500 Capp Street, where the late artist David Ireland lived and created, and created by just living.

Is that a chair, or an objet d’ art? Yes.

Would that bare bulb dangling on a copper umbilical cord be an artistic statement, or a source of light? Absolutely.

Those gouges in the walls and stains from erstwhile wallpaper, do they represent an overarching theme, or just remnants from adventures in home repair? Sure.

Do the Mason jars filled with dust signify man’s existential ephemerality, or are they merely examples a hoarder’s pathology? You bet.

When encountering late-19th-century Edwardian-Italianate row house anchoring 20th and Capp streets, where Ireland resided from 1975 until a few years before his death in 2009, it’s best to suspend judgment and slough off assumptions. Just enjoy the delicious ambiguity and inherent quirkiness from the imagination of a man who possessed both a finely cultivated aesthetic and a humorous penchant for elevating the mundane. So rare, after all, to be able to see the space of an artist just as it was during the height of creation, exquisite in its shabbiness, chic in its minimalistic design, its narrative revealed in a plenitude of small details.

At times, it almost feels intrusive, downright voyeuristic, as if the viewer were intruding on something personal. Yet that’s precisely the premise behind the recent opening of 500 Capp Street, to re-introduce the life and work of Ireland, whose reputation as one of the country’s most renowned conceptual artists has only risen since his death, by featuring his very house as the definitive installation and distillation of his vision.

If nothing else, the David Ireland House should be celebrated as an act of preservation in the fast-changing, dot-com-fueled gentrification of San Francisco’s Mission District. Mere days before the building was scheduled to go to auction in 2008 – condo developers and retail owners no doubt queuing up – philanthropist and arts patron Carlie Wilmans bought it for $895,000 with the intent to conserve and restore the aging, crumbling structure to the exact way Ireland had it before he was forced to move in 2005.

Years of exacting renovation ensued – decades of grime was wiped away, shaky support beams secured, painstaking restoration of the mustard-hued walls Ireland had famously stripped of wallpaper and slathered with coats of clear polyurethane – with the goal of some day opening 500 Capp Street as a testament to Ireland’s work, as well as a space to stage rotating exhibits of the 3,000 pieces he produced and, on the lower, modernized level, feature an education center and garage gallery.

That day is here. Since January, tours at 500 Capp Street have drawn hundreds. It’s been so popular, in fact, that tickets are sold out through mid-May. And this is just the introductory exhibit, a house-warming, if you will, showcasing the way Ireland lived and worked. A deeper delving into Ireland’s oeuvre will come in April, when artist, curator and Ireland friend Rebecca Goldfarb presents works showing his penchant for creating objects depicting flux.

What will remain on permanent display, of course, will be the house itself, where even the arrangement of furniture and placement of bookends became an artistic choice to be mulled, where Ireland’s personal quirks (scrawling names and phone numbers on the walls, making plaques to “commemorate” scratches in the floorboards) inform an understanding of his work.

Far from being exploitative, this exposure of Ireland’s personal space honors an artist who occasionally flung open his doors to the public and his dining room to friends in the arts, maintains Wilmans and members of the 500 Capp Street Foundation.

He believed, after all, in transparency – and not just when it comes to those lacquered walls. One of Ireland’s role models was Marcel Duchamp, the so-called grandfather of conceptualism, whose portrait sits propped on a chair in Ireland’s upstairs study. And it was Duchamp who once famously said, “The most interesting thing about artists is how they live.”

Golbfarb, who knew Ireland well, doesn’t hesitate when asked if her friend would’ve liked visitors tramping through his house.

“He’d be so honored, because it affirms his work,” she said. “David was very mindful of how intimate this space was, so much so that some people not familiar with his work might be confused as to where the art was. But there really isn’t any separation between work and life. The house is very diaristic. It’s like walking into somebody’s recorded events of their life.”

Jessica Roux, the foundation’s director of operations, flicked through her social-media feed to find a recent affirmative post that Ireland’s daughter made: “He would’ve loved the sound of people (in the house).”

That’s true, Goldfarb said. She recalled the first time she met Ireland at 500 Capp. Ireland excused himself to go to the kitchen ostensibly to make tea and stayed there a long while.

“He’d often do that,” Goldfarb said, “to give people time to wander.”

Docents from the San Francisco Arts Institute, where Ireland earned a graduate degree, give visitors a grounding into the history of the building. It dates to 1886 and was the home and storefront for an accordion maker (“Accordions P. Greub,” it still reads in gold leaf on the front window) before Ireland bought it for $50,000 in 1975.

The place, apparently, was in shambles, and Ireland methodically cleaned and rubbed and buffed. He stripped the wallpaper and paint off most walls until only the original plaster remained, then slathered on polyurethane, giving the space a distinctive glow. He wouldn’t throw away much – for an artist, everything is material – and often chose to repurpose mundane objects in imaginative ways.

So a smattering of brooms the accordion maker left behind became Ireland’s “Broom Collection with Boom,” in which the straw whisk brooms are arranged in a circular, tilted swirl, as if sweeping by their own accord. An island of misfit chairs became a trope throughout the house – a gravity defying, three-legged one in a hallway; a seatless one with bound San Francisco Chronicle newspaper circa the Jimmy Carter era as the backing in the bedroom; several hanging, seat-toward-wall sprouting wires or holding bare bulbs.

Common household objects served new purposes, most strikingly a pair of gas torches dangling from copper wires in the living room that, when lit, converge and retreat in a swirl of flames. The walls themselves have a stark beauty, some of the cracks so elaborate that they look almost marbleized or like ice breaking.

“The whole thing started off like any other simple home improvement project,” Roux said, though noting that, with artists, nothing is ever simple. “There was this hideous brown wallpaper, really dark, when he got there. And he just started stripping. He seemed to have found more satisfaction in this process than in anything else. That’s where this all started. Look here, where the backing of the wallpaper bled into the plaster. The company logo’s on back, exposing where door had been. He liked that kind of thing.”

It quickly became evident, Roux noted, that Ireland was not just cleaning; he was creating. A photo of Ireland from the late 1970s shows the stork-like 6-foot-4 artist in jeans and sneakers, donning a painter’s hat on a step-ladder, a tool belt around his waste, hammer dangling like a six-shooter off his hip. But what normal handyman-type of homeowner thinks to bottle and save dirt from window frames? One with an artistic sensibility, that’s who.

The question must be asked, though: Was Ireland a hoarder?

Roux shook her head, but conceded, “He definitely was sentimental for things. Like, he had an amazing collection of newspapers.”

In the dining room cabinet sits a Mason jar bearing the remains of a birthday cake Ireland made nearly four decades ago for a friend’s 90th birthday party. All that is discernible is a goopy, black blob.

“Here’s a photo of Mr. Gordon blowing out the candles,” Roux said, smiling. “You can see it was not a chocolate cake. I can confirm that it was a white sheet cake.”

Not anymore. Ireland, the definition of eccentric, was nothing if not playful. He liked to work with industrial materials, cement being a particular favorite. He would form scoops of cement, put them in ice cream goblets and give them to dinner guests as parting gifts. Other concrete objects d’art: bookends, lamp bases, candle holders, wash tubs.

Then there are his signature works, “dumbballs.” Donning gloves, he would toss cement from hand-to-hand for hours until it hardened into softball-size concrete objects. They are scattered through the house, as if the artist were a kid who hadn’t put away his toys.

Every household disfigurement became an opportunity for whimsy. Every wall smudge is preserved, bare footprints not sanded away. Wall gouges are seen not as mistakes to be spackled over but rather happy accidents to be celebrated – or, at least, dutifully acknowledged.

“A safe was upstairs when David first got here,” Roux said. “He tied a rope to it and tried to lower it down the stairs. It escaped once on the landing here and once on this wall. He decided to mark it with plaques: ‘The safe gets away the first time, November 5, 1975’ and ‘The safe gets away for the second time, November 5, 1975.’ 

Most pieces are not mere happenstance. Ireland thought long and hard about installations, Roux said.

When a window pane in the upstairs living room shattered, instead of replacing it, Ireland installed a copper plate used for etching. It shut off the view, of course, but Ireland took a late-1970s-era cassette tape deck and recorded what he saw out the window for posterity. In a fast-talking voice more suitable for a TV pitchman, Ireland ran through the litany of neighborhood sights (“… two trees, three-story apartment house, white with green trimming, red house, St. Charles church, Bank of America, yellow house with gray roof …”) The tape deck sits on a table facing the blotted-out window.

Wilmans has said that she was moved to purchase the house and restore it after first encountering that installation, thinking that it would lose all context if it was crated and shipped to a museum.

Evocative as the copper window may be, Ireland seemed more interested in revealing than concealing. Yet, the more Ireland revealed, the more questions he raised.

Like, what’s the deal with those names and phone numbers on the walls, forever preserved now in lacquer?

One recent day, in the midst of a tour, publicist Wendy Norris called over Roux to a wall near the dueling torch chandelier.

Norris, pointing to the name “Walter Chandler” and the date “1870” in Ireland’s chicken-scratch handwriting, “You ever seen this before?

Roux: “I missed that one!”

Norris: “I just Googled who Walter Chandler was. He was born somewhere in Portland, Maine, or maybe Mississippi. Why would David … ? You know anything about this?”

Roux: “No idea.”

She turned to a visitor, said, “I’ve been here five years and emptied the house top to bottom and there’s always something new I see. Never gets dull.”

The David Ireland House at 500 Capp Street, San Francisco

Cost: $20; $15 (child, senior, student)

Tour information: 500cappstreet.org

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