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This Fantastical Mission House Is S.F.'s Newest Public Art Space

The late conceptual artist fashioned chandeliers out of blowtorches and animal dung out of wallpaper. Now you can finally see it.

SLIDESHOW

The second-floor parlor at 500 Capp Street, where the chandelier is fashioned from flaming blowtorches.

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The artist David Ireland at home.

Photo: Elisa Cicinelli

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Before Ireland owned it, the 1886 Edwardian was the home and workshop of accordion maker Paul Greub. The gray facade and original gold-leaf signage were recently restored.

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Sculptural works by Ireland, including Broom Collection with Boom (1978/1988), an assortment of 16 brooms wired together; an untitled chair; and wallpaper “patties” (1978), inspired by the dung patties Ireland saw used for fuel on his travels through India.

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Mounted kudu horns in Ireland’s bedroom. He collected horns and animal skulls as a safari guide in the ’60s and early ’70s.

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A shelf in the dining room bears photos of the actress Natalie Wood alongside a vial of hand-panned gold flakes.

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The dining room is filled with handmade candlesticks, cement dumbballs, and exotic artifacts, including a stool made from an elephant’s foot, giraffe and rhino skulls, and antelope heads.

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At times an insurance salesman, a carpenter, an artifact dealer, an illustrator, a building designer, and a safari guide in Africa, the late conceptual artist David Ireland forged a career path that was anything but traditional. Unsurprisingly, his art was equally unconventional. Over the span of his 78 years, the San Francisco Art Institute grad created sculptures, paintings, and furniture from cast-offs and common materials: tangled bits of wire, discarded furniture, dirt, wood, and cement. “You can’t make art by making art,” he once said.

Though his pieces have been exhibited at such venerable institutions as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Ireland’s greatest work isn’t museum-worthy at all: It’s this house, at 500 Capp Street. Ireland bought the 1886 Edwardian in 1975 for $50,000 and set to work retrofitting it—sanding the wood, stripping the wallpaper, and painting the walls with layers of high-gloss varnish. With time, the structure became both a showcase for his art and a larger-than-life work in itself, filled with handmade furniture, artifacts, animal skulls, a blowtorch chandelier, and interactive pieces.

Ireland lived here until 2004, when his health began to fail. By then, the decrepit home was showing 30 years of wear. In 2008, Ann Hatch, his friend and art patron, was preparing to put the house on the market. As she was packing up Ireland’s possessions, she invited art collector Carlie Wilmans, an SFMOMA board member, to see the home. “I went out of curiosity,” says Wilmans, who had only a cursory knowledge of Ireland’s work. But when she climbed the stairway to the second floor, she stood agape, admiring the living room’s golden walls, gleaming in the last afternoon light. “After 10 minutes, the hamster wheel in my head started spinning,” she says. She spent the weekend poring over the catalog from Ireland’s 2004 Oakland Museum of California retrospective, The Way Things Are. She found herself drawn to his pretense-free philosophy and his quest to uncover beauty in overlooked objects. “When I finished, I called Ann,” Wilmans recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to buy the house.’”

In 2014, Wilmans kicked off a massive restoration and preservation project, aiming to turn the home into a public treasure. “It has never been my intention to put a bell jar over the house,” she says. She hired Jensen Architects to stabilize the home and add a study center, a gallery, an outdoor terrace, and a basement archive to hold 3,000 of Ireland’s works. When it opens in mid-January, 500 Capp Street will host tours, performances, artist residencies, and exhibits, beginning with Ireland’s freestanding sculpture Broom Collection with Boom (1978/1988), made from 16 worn-out brooms.

The house isn’t a typical gallery by any stretch, but therein lies its appeal. “The home is living sculpture,” says Wilmans. The space transforms with the art within it, just as Ireland intended. “One hour in this house changed my life forever,” she says. It wasn’t an isolated effect. Something about the whimsical and weird abode casts a spell over visitors. “I’ve seen its impact on people,” Wilmans says. “When they leave, I see them gazing at the cracks in the sidewalk differently.”

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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