The fires from the 1906 earthquake terminated one block north of 500 Capp Street, a severe-looking corner home built in the 1880s. In the case of most 19th-century Mission District residences, that would likely be the only historical tidbit 21st-century tenants would know.
Five hundred Capp Street is very different. For years, it was the home and studio for David Ireland, a conceptual artist whose personal warmth yet mildly eccentric ways gradually suffused throughout the structure until it became something of a three-story self-portrait, right down to the studs. If houses have "good bones," 500 Capp could be said to possess 206 of them.
Ireland preserved ancient cracks in the walls, shellacked them with polyurethane to create a luminous sheen, preserved an uneaten sheet cake from a nonagenarian tenant's going-away party, maintained a shrine to the actress Natalie Wood, created chandeliers out of propane canisters, and generally embodied the principle that life is art and art is life — all while entertaining frequently, and mentoring the young artists who came into his life.
Ireland, who died in 2009 at age 78, turned to art fairly late, getting a degree from the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 1974. His friend and benefactress Carlie Williams purchased the house and all its contents, and after a $2 million restoration, it opened to the public on Jan. 15. Ireland is so well-regarded by the arts establishment that SFMOMA relaxed its moratorium on loans to let 500 Capp Street borrow a sculpture of all the brooms left in the house by its previous owner. Restored in situ, it stands in a foyer at the top of the stairs, near a narrow hallway with uniquely curved walls.
SFMOMA "brought back pieces that are really intrinsic to the house," says art historian Constance M. Lewallen, a friend of Ireland's and the author of a monograph on 500 Capp Street. "They're not going to let it be static. Carlie said she didn't want to put a bell jar over the house."
Indeed, 500 Capp is anything but frozen in amber. As the garage needed replacing and the foundations were in dire shape — Ireland scavenged materials by excavating beneath it — the foundation added an archive room to the basement, repurposed the garage for a future artist-in-residency program, and built space for performances above it. (The $20, 90-minute tours are already booked until March.) The inaugural exhibit contains 118 objects from Ireland's corpus of more than 3,000 works, only some of which are site-specific. Others — like the "Dumbballs," spheres of concrete that Ireland claimed to have created over 18-hour periods by passing them from one gloved hand to the other — can be installed anywhere.
Yet the restoration and preservation were meticulous. Wall cracks were foundational — if you will — to the way Ireland furnished the rooms, so each fissure was catalogued. (As Lewallen writes in 500 Capp Street, "David considered them to be wall drawings of a sort, created by the stresses that time, earthquakes, and other natural forces had caused.") So 500 Capp could not be jacked up for fear of damaging the walls further, so the stabilization project required a delicate touch.
"Not a single hammer was used in anything," says Wendy Norris, a consultant for the foundation, who also notes no stilettos are allowed in the house. One upstairs room juxtaposes diagonal cracks with a severe, formally balanced bookshelf, home decorating on a seismic timescale.
Meanwhile, SFAI has a smaller exhibition of Ireland's work, ranging from smaller pieces to the witty Angel-Go-Round and a reenactment of his cement work Smithsonian Falls, Descending a Staircase for P.K. A scene depicting the salvation of a winged fiberglass angel from a pile of Greco-Roman garden statuary, Angel is pure sweetness and light in spite of weighing hundreds of pounds. Smithsonian Falls, a 6,000-pound "pour" of concrete —more like the spilling of bucket after bucket, in practical terms — is even more massive.
Ireland's alma mater is open to the adventure.
"There aren't that many places that would let you pour cement down their stairway knowing they'd have to take a jackhammer to get it up," Lewallen says.
The effect is arresting: a controlled experiment that's equal parts study in fluid dynamics, construction site mishap, and Kilauea crater.
SFAI curators are growing bolder in their determination to see what the floor can hold. Two exhibits ago, a team built a platform to better distribute the weight of a 3,000-gallon tank for Alejandro Almanza Pereda's upside-down, underwater photography show, Everything but the kitchen sank. ("Our engineer, I think, looks forward to our questions," says Hesse McGraw, SFAI's vice president for exhibitions and public programs administration.)
Being temporary, the SFAI show can't achieve the same lasting sense of vitality embodied by 500 Capp Street. But together, the two exhibitions give a lot of pleasure while showing just how instrumental this one house in the Mission really was to a certain inflection point in art history. If some of the objects on display feel a little minor to be regarded as works of art per se — a faded Aug. 2, 1980, San Francisco Chronicle with no major headlines to announce, maybe — it only proves just how much the idea of everyday-ephemera-as-art has become a canonical concept in the academy.
And as far as those highly flammable, highly Instagram-able propane chandeliers go, their dancing reflections on the high-gloss walls are enchanting even in broad daylight.
"David wanted to expose things," Norris says. "The house, depending on the light, speaks very differently to individuals. And in the evening, it could be even a little more crazy."