Home Improvements

Artist David Ireland's house is also his magnum opus. Today, it opens to the public for the first time in 35 years. Get an inside look with the woman who saved one of San Francisco's great art treasures.

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Ireland repairs the sidewalk outside 500 Capp street, 1976.
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The catalyst for conceptual artist David Ireland's greatest project came in 1976, when the city of San Francisco ordered him to repair the sidewalk in front of his new home at 500 Capp Street, in the Mission District. Ireland decided to treat the sidewalk repairs more as performance art than mere maintenance—a nod to Duchamp and his readymades. He quickly realized that the renovation of his entire home could be an artistic endeavor, too.

Ireland working on the home, 1976.
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Uncovering old doors behind wallpaper and stairways hidden by walls, Ireland (1930-2009) began a great excavation of his 1886 Italianate Victorian rowhouse. He stripped down the walls and floors, but instead of refinishing them, he sealed them with a transparent polyurethane coating. 500 Capp Street is sparsely furnished, but Ireland filled it with treasures from his extensive travels. Even traces from the renovation remain (balled up wallpaper torn from the walls sits on an heirloom desk and jars full of sawdust rest on the floor). Gradually, he turned the entire home into a relic: Such details as the gold lettering on a ground-floor window (a remnant from the Swiss accordion maker who once had a shop there) and 18 found brooms which Ireland turned into a once free-standing sculpture (now supported by a concrete anchor) are examples of the odd and ephemeral objects made remarkable by their presence in the home.

Ireland's collection of everyday objects.
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Ireland opened the house to the public for brief periods while he still lived there, first in 1978 when he completed renovations and again, temporarily, in 1980 (he also often invited groups in for informal open houses). But when he moved into assisted living in 2005, the home was slated to be gutted or torn down. That is, until it came to the attention of Carlie Wilmans, granddaughter of San Francisco arts patron Phyllis Wattis.

Moved in particular by an installation that includes a tape recording of Ireland describing the view out a covered window, Wilmans decided to buy the home in 2008 and preserve the work—she felt it would lose its meaning in a museum. Today, the house makes its public debut as San Francisco's first historic artist's home. Wilmans takes us through some of her favorite corners of the new museum, which she describes as standing inside a "shiny, amber capsule."

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1. Entryway

On the wall by Ireland's front door, he kept a collection of Post-It notes with messages for his guests like, "Be right back" or "D.I. at Jim's" indicating that he'd gone around the corner to Jim's Restaurant on Mission Street. "He would write these notes on a Post-It and when he wasn't using it, he would just stick it to the wall next to the door," says Wilmans. "I don't know if it was intended as an art work but they're an example of how David lived, so we've decided to maintain it."

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2. Stairwell

This dent in the wall is a result of when Ireland and the previous owner, Paul Greub, were moving Greub's safe out from the second floor. Tethered to a rope, the safe slipped once on the landing and a second time at the bottom of the stairs, slamming into and denting the wall in both instances. A brass plaque commemorates the dents. "This is a quintessential example of David taking life as it is," says Wilmans. "It was an accident; it wasn't necessarily a performance, but he treated it as such after the fact."

3. Hallway

When Ireland bought the house in 1975 from Greub, Greub had saved things that most people would discard, like this chair "Chair Work," which probably once had a thatched seat. "David took all of this material and started incorporating it into his body of work." says Wilmans. "This was where the chair was when I first purchased the house. It's an example of David elevating what most people would just throw away." Resting on the chair is a piece of cardboard, a material Ireland often used as a canvas.

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4. Second-floor landing

"When David moved into the house, he noticed that Mr. Grueb had all these brooms in various states of wear," says Wilmans. "They weren't all stacked up in the garage to be discarded; they were actually in the corners of each room. All of these brooms had these various wear patterns that David found very beautiful as a marking of time. So he collected the brooms and arranged them. SFMoMA owns this piece ['Broom Collection with Boom'] and when I first saw it in situ in the house it brought tears to my eyes. It absolutely glowed."

5. Back parlor

"The blowtorch chandelier is a performative piece [called 'Fire Drawing']. It's two independent propane blowtorches," says Wilmans. "David was a very tall man—he was about 6'4''—and he would operate the chandelier by standing up and turning on the propane on one of the tanks, lighting it, opening the valve on the second tank, and making them kiss, thereby lighting both. Because they're hung from this wire, he would simply let them go and the tanks would bounce and the flames would flicker off the wall. It's amazing. So many of his friends have told me that they would come over in the evening, David would light the chandelier, and all of a sudden the fire department would show up."

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6. Back parlor detail

"The little framed piece over the fireplace is a work by the artist Tony Labat, a cutout in the shape of a lightboat with two burnt matchsticks. He gave the piece to David and David put it over the fireplace—he screwed it into the wall. It's an example of David's relationship with the arts community. He revered other artists and often incorporated their work into the house."

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7. Guest room

"This is a room where David did not coat the walls with polyurethane. He did strip them down to the bare plaster, presenting another way of looking at the house in its bare beauty: revealing the flaws, cracks, and water damage," explains Wilmans.The objects in the room, including the homemade light, ("I find it very serene, yet dramatic the way that the light casts a shadow of the chair back into the corner," Wilmans says), and the concrete bookends on the shelf reference his time studying industrial design at California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts). The photo of Marcel Duchamp on the right side is an homage to the artist who deeply inspired Ireland.

8. Dining room

"A lot of these objects are on display because they demonstrate his consideration of concrete as a democratic everyday material," says Wilmans. On the dining table are three light fixtures made with iron and concrete bases and various objects including dishes filled with ice cream-shaped concrete that he often gave as gifts to dinner guests. Other objects in the room, like the wax narwhal and the kudu skull, are objects from his time as a guide on African safaris and his travels through Southeast Asia and Japan. "The house tells the story of the house," says Wilmans. "This room tells the story of David."

9. Corner shrine

In the back corner of the dining room is Ireland's shrine to actress Natalie Wood. "David definitely loved the ladies," Wilmans says. "Natalie Wood was his celebrity crush, I guess you would call it." On the shrine are two photos of Wood, one encircled by an infinity sign, a cake of annatto seed paste, and various jars, one of which encapsulates gold mined by Ireland in the Sierras."This is a piece about love and value," reflects Wilmans. "David was a rugged, hammer-swinging guy, but he loved women."

For more information, see 500cappstreet.org.

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