San Francisco artist David Ireland spent decades undermining himself, literally. A lot of Ireland's found-object sculptures consisted of materials dug out of the basement of his home and studio at 500 Capp St., including much of the brick and mortar holding up the 1886 house. When the artist moved into an assisted living facility in 2008, the house had morphed into one large, precarious artwork. It went on the market and, had it been sold to most people, it would have certainly faced an extreme remodel or demolition. That's when an art collector stepped in and saved the house by purchasing it. Today, after the addition of a visitor center, it's set to become a museum and art studio.
By the time Ireland died in 2009, there wasn't much left underneath the old place. "It was just dirt. Wooden staves were shoved into the gaps in the brickwork," says Dean Orr, principal architect for Jensen Architects, the firm given the delicate task of preserving the Ireland house. Despite—or, actually, because of—its funky vibe and teetering foundations, the house is widely considered Ireland's greatest work in and of itself. It had been his home from the time he bought it for $50 thousand in 1975 (the equivalent of $220 thousand in today's economy).
Art collector Carlie Wilmans put a down payment on it and formed the 500 Capp Street Foundation. The decision to make it a museum for some 2,000 of Ireland's works was a natural one. But first they had to save it from falling in on itself, Poltergeist-style.
The basement was prone to flooding, making it essentially an in-home swamp. It had to be irrigated and excavated, and then a new foundation was poured, all in piecemeal fashion so as not to tempt gravity by unsettling the structure. "Most contractors took one look at it and ran for the hills," says Mark Jensen, principal of Jensen Architects.
There was plenty of work to be done upstairs too—40 percent of the wall surfaces had to be replaced—but they couldn't come at it like a normal historical preservation job. The cracks in the plaster and the dings in the floor weren't there just because it's an old house. They were there because Ireland liked them. He once dented the stairs trying to move a heavy safe, and rather than fix it he put up small plaques over each to commemorate the occasion.
This makes sense when you see Ireland's work, on display throughout: A crocodile's skull papered with fortune cookie slips; aluminum serving platters piled with concrete rubble; serving spoons forever trapped in their dishes; Mason jars filled with the crumbled remains of walls or the foundation; and his freestanding sculpture "Broom Collection With Boom" (on loan from the San Francisco Museum Modern of Art), which is indeed a collection of antique brooms arranged in order of worn-out condition.
Much of these materials Ireland found in the Capp Street house, left by its previous owner (who operated an accordion shop—the gold-leaf lettering advertising his wares is still visible in the front window). Ireland delighted in used, worn-out, and broken things. Contrary to appearances, he didn't let the house just go to pot around him. "These walls probably wouldn't be here at all if he hadn't done the work on them," says Wilmans. But when a crack in a wall appealed to his aesthetic, he kept it.
So conservationists diagrammed each and every scuff and scratch and saved them. Nothing of what was removed was thrown away (there are 20 buckets of dirt alone removed from the basement), so that future artists might use the materials in their own work.
The house opens to the public this Friday, with an exhibition of Ireland's work, appearances by artists who knew him, live performances, and food. "It used to be you'd see the lights on in this place and wonder what was going on," says artist and curator Bob Linder. "People who toured it talked about it for weeks." It will probably be hard to recapture that mystique in its entirety again. But at least the old place isn't going anywhere. —Adam Brinklow