After eight years, the polyurethane walls have been restored, the cement balls and animal skulls carefully arranged, and the excavated foundations and stripped interior fortified for the Friday opening of the David Ireland House at 500 Capp St.
The former home of the San Francisco conceptual artist has been under restoration for the last 20 months. It was bought in 2008 for $895,000 with the intention of maintaining it as a museum dedicated to Ireland, an artist who followed in his own idiosyncratic way the footsteps of Marcel Duchamp to take ordinary objects and transform them for the viewer. During the time he lived on Capp Street, the house became as much of an art project as his other objects, but it was scheduled to be sold on the open market.
“I decided very impulsively to purchase the house, to save it from what was happening in the Mission at the time,” said Carlie Wilmans, who started the 500 Capp Street Foundation in 2009 to preserve Ireland’s work. She spearheaded the restoration effort to save Ireland’s house from degradation (the building is 130 years old) and the real estate market. “This house would certainly have been lost if it had been bought by a developer,” she said.
Ireland came to San Francisco in his 40s to pursue an arts degree at the San Francisco Art Institute, moving into 500 Capp St. in 1975 after buying it for $50,000. “He was looking for a place that he could afford, a place where he could live, and a place where he could have a studio,” said Wilmans, all of which led him to the corner of 20th and Capp.
Over the next 30 years, Ireland turned his home into a live-in arts space, stripping its walls bare, decorating it with elephant feet and gazelle skulls from his African export shop, holding dinner parties that would turn into performances, and turning everyday events into potential art pieces.
One such piece commemorates a moving operation gone awry, with a plaque that reads “The safe gets away for the second time, November 5, 1975” next to a gash in the wall caused by the mishap. It’s just down the stairs from another hole and plaque commemorating the “first time” for the safe, and a few feet from another marking the dragging away of a “punch press.”
Jessica Roux, the director of operations at the house, said Ireland once received a notice from the city to fix the sidewalk, and turned that mundane task into a piece by filming it.
“For him, there was no separation between art and life,” she said. A former stage manager, Roux said Ireland’s work appealed to her because its performative aspect removed it from the “lofty pedestal” associated with most art, making it more accessible to the ordinary man.
But the house is not made up of ordinary objects — at least not after Ireland’s touch. The dining room is filled with incongruity: A giant water buffalo skull rests next to a bottle of beer, cement balls rolled by Ireland sit on a table framed by hanging plastic trout and bare-bulb lamps, and bundles of sticks are gathered underneath crumbling Catholic and Buddhist idols. There is a bowl of cement shaped like ice cream — replete with spoon — sitting on the dining table, and a cheap air-filled plastic globe hangs on the wall guarded by gazelle horns.
The rest of the house is similarly eclectic. An upstairs cabinet holds a vial labeled “Officially gathered blizzard of 1993” — just a bottle of water — and a photo of a somewhat somber Ireland greeting a grinning Ronald Reagan.
“His work is interesting because it’s very generous,” said Vladimir Tikay, a recent graduate from the Arts Institute who was working as a docent at the house. “It’s hard to understand conceptual art, but because the objects he used are so universal, it’s easier to relate…He was more democratic about everything.”
Ireland described his inspiration and intentions of some of his pieces in a 2001 interview with Suzanne B. Riess for UC Berkeley’s oral history project. One of his pieces, “Broom Collection with Broom,” was assembled from old brooms he found when he first moved into the house, left over by the previous occupant.
“I decided I would configure them in some kind of clock formation because it would show — you buy a broom, you sweep with it, you wear it out, and you discard it and buy another one and do the same thing, so there’s kind of a repetition of assemblage here,” he said at the time.
Seeing Ireland during his first year as an undergraduate, Tikay was impressed by a particular piece of Ireland’s “100-Year-Old Water,” because it reflected his style of combining “personal history and a simple gesture.”
“He found a 100-year-old penny, he washed it, and he saved the water,” Tikay said.
But it is the house itself that is the object of attention here, and its restoration was no sure thing.
Ireland covered almost the entire interior with polyurethane, a transparent coating meant to preserve the walls in their age and imperfection — cracks, discolorations, and all. The team went through several different coatings before choosing one that maintained the glossy sheen of the polyurethane, and also applied it lightly enough so that Ireland’s original brush strokes were not lost.
Then there was the basement. Ireland worked with raw materials like concrete, clay, and mud, “many of which were mined from 500 Capp Street,” said Wilmans. In his digging, Ireland had created a hole ten feet deep in the basement, a structural danger to the house in earthquake-prone California.
The massive hole required that the lower level be bolstered and a new concrete foundation poured. All of it was done by hand — sans heavy machinery — as Ireland had worked.
“He was digging,” said Mark Jensen, one of the principal architects involved. “We just dug a little deeper.”
The house will have its grand opening this Friday at 5:30 p.m. with a $20 admission. Normal museum hours will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Wilmans plans to have three to four exhibitions during the year along with an artist-in-residence program starting in 2017.
During the opening weekend, La Cocina will have a food truck idling outside while Southern Exposure presents performances all along 20th and Capp streets. Wilmans imagines partnerships with other Mission organizations like Kadist, 826 Valencia, and ODC in the future, though she did not yet know specifics.