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From Tony Duquette, a magical space

The Duquette Pavilion on Geary near Fillmore.

In the late 1980s, while driving down Geary Street in San Francisco, designer Tony Duquette discovered an abandoned and vandalized synagogue. He immediately purchased the building. After thoroughly remodeling and updating the structure [located on Geary near Fillmore where the post office now stands], Tony began creating a new exhibition named the Canticle of the Sun of Saint Francis of Assisi, after the patron saint of San Francisco.

The building itself was historic, and what Tony did with it architecturally was equally historic.

When he found the building it was missing all of its windows, and the first order of business was to seal it up beautifully. Using his favorite material, cast resin, he created amazing inverted conch-shell windows in the two towers and replaced the original stained-glass main window with a creation made from Plexiglas, resin, golf balls, sliced plastic drinking glasses, plastic salad servers from Pic ‘n Save, and all manner of everyday items, which he found beautiful in their repetition.

Turning towers made from old greeting card racks.

The main floor of the synagogue would be home to the exhibition. Tony and his volunteer workers created beautiful fabric mosaic tapestries representing the teachings of St. Francis. An 18th century figure of St. Francis was positioned at the center of the old altar, surrounded by a flock of Rajputani clay birds — perched in dead tree branches — to which he preached a sermon.

Giant faux malachite urns from an 18th century Austrian palace graced the sides of the stage, and behind those were the amazing 15-foot-tall gold-leaf Baroque trees that Tony had prominently displayed for years in his Los Angeles studio.

Above all of this was a giant copper sunburst made from the destroyed and discarded pipes of the building’s original pipe organ. All around the 80-by-80-foot room (and nearing the top of its 40-foot ceilings) ran a horseshoe balcony. It was on this balcony that Tony positioned his army of 28-foot-tall angels, with the 18-foot-tall Madonna in her pavilion holding court at the back. This entire ensemble was artfully hidden by a theatrical scrim, but when the lighting illuminated them from behind, the tableaux appeared and disappeared, to amazing effect.

Under the balcony Tony positioned various sculptures, furniture groupings and works of art. For this celebratory environment Tony asked his friend Herb Alpert to compose the music. Charlton Heston recited a new poem by Ray Bradbury, and the whole place was set to computerized lighting.

In the basement Tony set up several party rooms and various gallery spaces. The biggest of these galleries held an exhibition of his wife Beegle’s paintings. The exhibition, like Tony’s other exhibitions, was a brilliant popular success.

Unfortunately, after being open only a brief time, the entire building — and all of its contents, including the majority of Tony’s personal collections and original works of art — burned one night as the result of an electrical fire.

Excerpted from Tony Duquette, copyright 2007 by Wendy Goodman and Hutton Wilkinson.