Artist David Ireland's Restored San Francisco House Reveals the Art of the Everyday
Every once in a while, a piece of art will fundamentally change the way you see the world. That’s what happened to Carlie Wilmans the first time she visited 500 Capp Street.
It was early 2008, and the battleship-gray Italianate house in San Francisco’s Mission District was about to be put up for sale. The artist David Ireland had owned it for 33 years, transforming it from an accordion-maker’s home and workshop into a celebrated work of lived-in sculpture. Ireland had moved out in 2005 because of declining health, and the one-of-a-kind residence sat vacant while his friends and advisors tried to figure out what to do with it.
One friend, art patron Ann Hatch, invited Wilmans to tour the 19th-century house and experience the way Ireland elevated ordinary objects—a discarded chair, an old wire hanger—to the level of art, all against the backdrop of impossibly glossy yellow walls. “I felt like I was in an amber capsule,” says Wilmans, a founding director of The Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation, an organization named for her philanthropist grandmother that supports the arts in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Just spending an hour and a half here helped me understand that what David did was not about making art, but about drawing out the nascent artistic qualities of everyday life. Now, when I see something like a utility pole, I don’t just see a blight on the sidewalk—there’s beauty in it.”
Ireland was financially strapped, and he urgently needed to sell the house before a provision of California’s property tax law kicked in and caused 500 Capp Street’s taxes to soar. The real estate market in the rapidly gentrifying Mission was white-hot, especially given the neighborhood’s convenience to freeways leading to Silicon Valley. “I’m almost absolutely certain that someone would have bought the house and turned it into condos or razed it,” Wilmans says. Instead, right before it hit the market, she impulsively decided to buy it herself.
By rescuing 500 Capp Street from development, Wilmans was not only saving an important historic structure; she was also preserving the legacy of an extraordinary life. Ireland’s biography begins in relatively standard fashion, but it takes some wild turns. The Bellingham, Washington, native graduated from what is now the California College of the Arts with a degree in industrial design and printmaking in 1953. He served in the United States Army and followed his father into the insurance business back home. After his father’s retirement, though, Ireland jettisoned his insurance job and spent the next several years working as a travel guide in Africa. In an era when trade in exotic wildlife items such as tusks and hides was less regulated than it is now, he opened a shop called Hunter Africa, where he sold goods he’d brought back from his adventures and became a San Francisco fixture.
As local legend has it, sometime in the late 1960s or early ’70s a student at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) borrowed a taxidermied elephant’s foot from him for an installation. After seeing the student’s work, Ireland was so inspired that he enrolled in SFAI’s Master of Fine Arts program. He threw himself into the city’s art scene, and in his early 40s he began a new life as a full-time artist, exploring the possibilities of tactile materials such as cement and everyday objects. He graduated in 1974 and began teaching at SFAI and other area schools.
In 1975 Ireland purchased 500 Capp Street from Swiss-born accordion-maker Paul Greub for $50,000. (By way of comparison, a house across the street sold in 2015 for $4.1 million.) Built in 1886 by a roofer named Martin Walton, the two-story, 2,400-square-foot residence had been occupied by Greub and his family for decades. Greub added a side entrance for his workshop, as well as a storefront window where he could display his creations, with a gold-leaf “P. Greub Accordions” sign applied to the glass.
When Greub moved out of 500 Capp, he left behind piles and piles of detritus. Old brooms, beaten-up furniture, and glass jars, for example—all things most people would grumble about and throw in the trash. But Ireland saw them as raw materials for his work, and he began to see the house itself the same way. He set up his studio in Greub’s old workshop, keeping the weathered sign.
Entranced by the honeyed light pouring in through the windows, he began systematically stripping 90 years’ worth of wallpaper, paint, and carpeting. In a move that would surely shock many preservationists, he removed the molding around a number of the upstairs windows, leaving the outlines of the molding in place and the windows’ operating mechanisms exposed. “His interest was in discovering the house—how the windows work, being able to draw the eye to features other people might discard,” Wilmans says.
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Once the majority of the walls, floors, and ceilings were bare, Ireland coated them with multiple layers of polyurethane, creating a gleaming golden surface that also served as an ideal medium for preservation. His Zen-like motto was “you can’t make art by making art,” meaning that if you try too hard to create something, you risk losing its serendipitous essence. So in keeping with his belief in letting things happen naturally, he left existing cracks and dents in place under the reflective surface. (He even made some himself and honored a few of those with brass plaques: The Safe Gets Away For The First Time November 5, 1975 and The Safe Gets Away For The Second Time November 5, 1975 refer to a sequence of mishaps in moving a heavy safe.) An old green chair became a defining hallway sculpture; strips of wallpaper were formed into burger-shaped “patties” and attached to the wall next to it.
Ireland worked on the house and its contents for more than two years, holding a grand opening from February 3 to February 12, 1978. He prepared a highly embellished back story for the house, recasting Martin Walton as a ship’s captain instead of a roofer. (This change was inspired by the ship-like curved wall in the upstairs hallway.)
The 6-foot-4-inch, mustachioed artist spent the next 30 years creating acclaimed work, always as part of the life he was living at 500 Capp Street. He took dirt from underneath the house and incorporated it into both the wallpaper patties and torpedo-shaped pieces he called “Unidentifiable Unknown Objects.” When someone threw a rock through a window, he replaced the pane with a copper panel. But first he recorded an audiotape of himself describing the exact view from that window. “He was preserving the view,” Wilmans says. Greub’s jars became sculptural containers for items that marked the passage of time: rubber bands from newspaper deliveries, a brown sweater left behind by a friend, an unraveled tape from a recorded interview. A 2000 New York Times story noted that “his most important achievement is the half-deconstructed, carefully preserved Victorian house he lives in, a continuing work of environmental art.”
Wilmans reminds me that, though Ireland may have lived in a rarefied world of big artistic ideas, he also had a regular existence with daily routines. “His kids would visit, and nieces and nephews,” she says. “This normal, everyday life was happening in this social sculpture.” In the entry hall, a grid of pastel sticky notes in Ireland’s handwriting is still attached to the polyurethaned wall. “D.I. at Jim’s, 11:00” reads one, referring to his favorite coffee shop on nearby Mission Street. (Jim’s is still there, with friendly service and cracked leather banquettes.)
Ireland also threw boisterous dinner parties in the dimly lit dining room. “You always stayed later than you meant to and left earlier than you wanted to,” says building contractor and art collector Steve Oliver, another friend.
“This normal, everyday life was happening in this social sculpture.”Carlie Wilmans
Ireland died in 2009, a year after Wilmans bought the house. The two had met several times since her purchase, and she understood his generous nature and mischievous sense of humor. But he didn’t give her any instructions about the house. She gathered an informal brain trust of his friends and associates, meeting with them at 500 Capp Street to seek their counsel. “We decided we would make the house publicly accessible and not put a bell jar on it,” she says. “David was actively creating it. We wanted it to carry on his tradition of being open and engaging.” She also opted to restore it to the way it was that opening day in February of 1978.
But first, the structure needed major stabilization. By removing dirt from beneath the house to use in his work, Ireland had gradually carved out a little room in the basement, his favorite getaway. Unfortunately, this process, along with the effects of major earthquakes in 1906 and 1989, had seriously compromised the building’s foundation. Wilmans and the top-notch team of professionals she hired—Steve Oliver as contractor, Mark Jensen and Dean Orr of Jensen Architects as the principal architects, and David Wessel of ARG Conservation Services as lead conservator—puzzled over how to keep Ireland’s dirt-walled basement room intact, but in the end they realized they had to prioritize safety. “There were a lot of priorities, but one was making sure this house would not fall down,” Orr says.
Before they could start fixing the foundation, though, Wessel and his team needed to get inside the house and make sure the artwork (including the rooms themselves) could stand up to vibrations from the impending construction that would be happening beneath the house. They evaluated the plaster walls, ceilings, and finishes; the windows and trim; and all the elements in the house’s art installations. Because 500 Capp had been photographed many times over the years, there were good records of the interiors, and they hadn’t changed significantly. “Most places have been mucked around with,” Wessel says. “Here, so much was still there. We also had a tremendous resource of people who had been through the house whom we could call upon.”
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The consensus was that the plaster was fragile in places, and the windows were in decent condition but would need to be removed and repaired. Much of the art was so embedded in the house that it could not be removed without causing damage to the walls and ceilings. So Wessel and his team protected those pieces in special foam-and-plywood boxes. They carefully injected adhesive behind the most delicate pieces of plaster to stabilize it without changing the way it looked, and had the historic window sashes, many with their original panes, taken off site for restoration.
With the main house now shored up, the foundation work could begin. Oliver’s team demolished a non-historic rear garage and porch structure, excavating directly into the basement. They added cribbing to hold up the house while they cleared out all the old, weakened foundation walls. Then they gradually poured a new concrete foundation, removing a section of the cribbing at each step. (Orr calls it “a giant concrete bathtub” supporting the house.) Steel beams were also added to reinforce the wood floors under the workshop, entry hall, and dining room.
To really make 500 Capp Street viable for public admission, a more accessible entry and a place for restrooms were needed, and Wilmans also asked for office, storage, and gallery space. Jensen and Orr tucked an office and storage area under the newly stabilized house, and designed a terrace-topped, exposed-concrete gallery (called “The Garage”) on the site of the old garage. Connecting the new spaces to the main house is a sculptural outdoor stair—also made of concrete, one of Ireland’s favorite materials.
Wilmans was determined to make the main house accessible for all visitors, and Orr managed to find an elevator that could fit the tight space they had found for it—not an easy thing in a historic structure. The team opted to remove Ireland’s second-floor bathroom, which was more utilitarian than the rest of the house, in order to squeeze in the elevator. “I was really nervous about how that would be responded to,” Wilmans says. “But a student of David’s happened to be here after we installed the elevator, and he told me that’s what David had wanted—for people to have access to the house. That was really validating.”
Once construction was complete, Wessel and his team were free to resume their in-depth conservation work. Through much trial and error, they realized that only an oil-based varnish would re-create the exact sheen of the walls, floor, and ceilings from 1978. Oil-based polyurethane can only be bought by the quart in California because of strict environmental restrictions, so they ended up purchasing several cases of quart cans. But it worked. The softly gleaming walls are a hit with visitors, and they match up to the 1978 pictures. “I think the reflective value is really what the artist was trying to achieve,” Wessel says.
ARG also meticulously reproduced the first-floor signage and house number using gold leaf, right down to the scuffing consistent with the 1978 appearance. They matched the window hardware that was in place during Ireland’s time in the house. And they reattached loose plaster and woodwork. The exact gray of Ireland’s original exterior paint was identified and replicated. Everyone involved with 500 Capp’s restoration understood that it was both a delicate old building and an extraordinary work of art, and they cared for it accordingly.
With the restoration and addition work completed, the house opened to the public in January of 2016. Part museum, part historic home and studio, part work of art, it all seems powered along by Ireland’s engaging spirit. For example, the guides for public tours on Wednesdays through Fridays are all practicing artists in the early stages of their careers. “One of the most important things for me in doing this is to carry on David Ireland’s legacy as a teacher and mentor to young artists,” Wilmans explains. “With this program, we can get their voices out there and give visitors a truly unique experience.”
On Saturdays the house is open for self-guided tours, and The Garage offers free admission. Curators Bob Linder (a former Ireland student) and Diego Villalobos are constantly planning exhibitions by artists whose work somehow intersects with Ireland’s—not necessarily visually, but philosophically. New York artist Tony Matelli’s show I hope all is well…, which ran inside the main house this summer and early fall, featured pieces that aren’t what they seem, such as Weed, a plant growing out of a crack in the wall that turned out to be made of painted bronze. Concerts, plays, and dance performances—including a site-specific piece directed by dance pioneer Anna Halprin last year—are other ways 500 Capp continues Ireland’s tradition of cross-disciplinary work.
Wilmans’ main goal is for people to be able to experience the sense of wonder she felt her first time at the house. “I want people to be inspired by the house and by David Ireland,” she says. But she also knows that to reach more people, the site will need to be financially self-sustaining in the long term. In March, she stepped down after 10 years as executive director of the private 500 Capp Street Foundation, opting to focus more on fundraising and big-picture goals for the house. She’s still intensely involved as the founder and chair of the board of trustees—just not as much with day-to-day operations. “My ultimate goal is that it achieves the status of a public charity,” she says. “We want to do absolutely the best for this house.”
Whatever exhibitions, events, and restoration projects happen at 500 Capp in the future, they’ll happen within (or near) those glowing golden walls. Wessel describes them as having “a certain sparkle.” Visitors often tell Wilmans they feel as if they’re inside a honeycomb. And Steve Oliver remembers them well from his dinners at Ireland’s. “For me, the magic was always the walls,” he says. “Just that little extra punch of color and glamour and sizzle [along with] the damage and the cracks. Who else could make a work of art out of it?”