Six years ago, when developers offered artist Gary Sweeney “an armored truck full of money” for his childhood home in Manhattan Beach, he turned them down. Sweeney, who currently lives in San Antonio, Texas, was content renting out the old wood-paneled beach house to surfers and letting a management company deal with repairs.
But then the airline where Sweeney worked a day job as a baggage handler offered him cash to retire. He's in his 60s now, with no children and a wife whose job as a flight attendant would make traveling the world easy and affordable. On top of that, tree roots in the yard of the house at 320 35th St. were constantly mucking up the plumbing and maintenance costs were piling high. It was time to sell. Time to retire. Time to travel and make art full-time.
Eventually the developers came knocking again and offered Sweeney “two armored trucks full of money” for the property his parents purchased for $5,400 in 1945. He accepted on one condition: He would maintain occupancy of the house until the end of February in order to install and show an art project that would honor his family, their home and the close-knit community that surrounds it.
Sweeney's family — his father, Mike, in particular — made a big impact on their small town. The elder Sweeney was a city councilman for 20 years before serving three terms as mayor of Manhattan Beach. He was well known as the owner of a neighborhood hardware store, which was as much a gathering spot for locals as a place to buy saws and screws. He also was an amateur photographer who used a darkroom in his basement to develop pictures of his all-American family doing all-American things.
Mike died in 2000, so to honor him and their family home, Gary Sweeney has turned his old house into a giant outdoor gallery covered in his father's photos. Back in San Antonio, Gary scanned the family pictures onto large pieces of MDO plywood, then packed them into a truck and drove them 1,300 miles across the desert. With the help of a graduate student, he covered the entire outside of the old house in a jigsaw of large, nostalgic images of babies, beloved pets, prom dates, birthday parties and himself as an infant, young boy and awkward teenager.
You can walk or drive by the Sweeney House anytime this month and see a family's history on display. It's an experience that feels both intimate and inclusive. The photos reveal one particular family's history, but the retro hairstyles and backyard barbecue poses are a familiar part of our collective American memory.
These particular photos may be of the Sweeney family in the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s, but they're also iconic of a universal American experience and a reminder of a time when the middle class thrived and life — at least as it appears through a father's photographic lens — was simpler.
While seeing the house from the outside is interesting, exploring the inside makes this project memorable. The experience of walking through the sagging space is similar to that of going to an estate sale. The same sense of nostalgia and sadness hangs in the air and around the few remaining objects: a vintage oven with a pullout-drawer stove, a box of neatly labeled hardware in the basement, a surfer's discarded board.
For the month of February, Gary Sweeney is living at 320 35th St., sleeping on a twin mattress on the floor and showering in the single bathroom he once shared with his parents and sister. Every Wednesday this month between 3 and 8 p.m., he'll be on site to offer personal tours of his family's home to visitors. There was a public reception on the evening of Feb. 10.
“It's bittersweet,” Sweeney explains. He's sad to let go of the house he grew up in, but he's happy to have financial security heading into retirement, as well as the cash to make more art. Sweeney has produced public art for spaces including the Denver and San Antonio airports, but he has felt limited by cash flow. “I can make huge bronze statues if I want to now!”
The experience of staying in the house he lived in from infancy is likely somewhat strange, but Sweeney also is getting the rare opportunity to give his childhood home a beautiful and meaningful goodbye. It's the kind of farewell most family homes don't get, and Sweeney is grateful to have this time of closure as well as an opportunity to reconnect with old haunts and friends.
After Feb. 29, when he packs the plywood portraits back into the truck and heads back to Texas, the house will be demolished and replaced by a pair of three-story condos. “It's not going to be fun when I drive off,” he says, “but this is always going to be my hometown.”
Manhattan Beach Memoir | 320 35th St., Manhattan Beach | Through Feb. 29