Retired curator Mark Gervasi works at the Monroe County Museum

Retired curator Mark Gervasi works at the Monroe County Museum

MONROE — When he retired, professional curator Mark Gervasi didn’t want to stop preserving history.

He worked at The Henry Ford for 30 years and did conservation projects for the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, Cranbrook, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Shaker Hill Museum in Kentucky. He worked on presidential pieces and even helped with President Abraham Lincoln’s famous theater chair.

So after retiring, Gervasi, 70, took his talents on the road. Today he does free conservation work for small museums in Michigan. He’s done just about all the work he can near his home in St. Clair Shores, so he’s branching out. He recently founded the Monroe County Museum System.

“When I retired, I didn’t want to give up that world. I love what I do so much,” Gervasi said. “I’ve helped countless small museums in Michigan. I go through their collections and find pieces that deserve restoration. That excites me. I don’t charge for it. It brings me a lot of joy.”

Monroe lives about an hour’s drive from his home restoration workshop.

“It’s a little far out,” Gervasi said. “It was my first trip to your area. Monroe is the smallest, southernmost museum I help out with. I’ve stayed mostly in Macomb and Sanilac counties.”

Gervasi’s first project for the Monroe County Museum was an 1830s Boston rocking chair once owned by Laurent Durocher, a veteran of the War of 1812, a probate judge in Monroe, and the city’s first justice of the peace. Durocher died in 1861.

The chair and other historical pieces were purchased for the museum in 2004. The items were part of a collection by local memorabilia collector Charles Verhoeven, according to Monroe News archives.

Previous news: The Honourable Laurent Durocher: A Man of Many Hats

“(The rocking chair) was not in great shape when I got it. It was held together with duct tape and wooden braces. That kept it in one piece, but it was definitely not usable. It would not have been a seat,” Gervasi said. “There were areas of color loss on the comb rail. It did not present itself in a complete form in that condition. In my work, it was not terrible, but it was not legible enough to display.”

Gervasi completely took the rocking chair apart, spending about 12 hours on the project.

“The seat board fell apart. I screwed a piece of wood to the bottom to hold the two pieces together. It was very fragile,” Gervasi said. “I re-glued all the joints. I touched up areas, lots of little spots. I spent several hours painting those holes. It was pretty easy, nothing taxing or challenging.”

The completed rocking chair is back on display at the museum, 126 South Monroe St. in Monroe.

“We are very pleased with his work,” said Lynn Reaume of the Monroe County Museum System.

But visitors should not expect to see a fully restored chair.

“The goal wasn’t to make it look brand new. That was never the goal,” Gervasi said. “You take what you have, stabilize it, make it look like a nearly 200-year-old chair, but a well-maintained chair. It had been used a lot. I left some of that in. I didn’t want to hide the wear, but I did remove all the signs of neglect.”

Now Gervasi hopes to work on more of Monroe’s artifacts.

“I’m looking at other things for the museum in Monroe. I drove down there and earmarked some things. I’m looking forward to helping out. It’s a very nice museum,” Gervasi said.

The restorer is not only concerned with furniture.

“Furniture is my specialty, but after all these years I got bored. I worked on a slot machine for a museum in New Baltimore. I loved working on two reed organs in Port Sanilac. They were in really bad shape. It was a real challenge. There’s no YouTube on how to put a reed organ back together,” Gervasi said. “I like the mechanical stuff, taking it apart and putting it back together. I like Civil War artifacts; Monroe has those. I like challenges, diamonds in the rough.”

After decades in the business, Gervasi can’t name a favorite project.

“There are too many things you could say, ‘That was the piece,’” he said.

Gervasi is a self-taught conservationist who started out helping his neighbors restore their antiques.

“Antique nickel and dime pieces that people have in their homes, I was happy to start with that. I worked almost for free on the first couple hundred pieces,” Gervasi said.

Subscribe now: For the latest local developments, breaking news and sports content in secondary schools.

Today, he says his colleagues in the field require a master’s degree.

“I could never duplicate my career without a master’s degree. It’s very competitive. There’s a lot more science now. I was very interested in the craft of conservation, not the academic side,” Gervasi said. “I feel very fortunate that I got into it. It didn’t cost $50,000 a year to go to graduate school.”

Anyone with information regarding the provenance of the Laurent Durocher Chair is asked to contact the Monroe County Museum Archives and Collections Department at 734-240-7790.

Contact reporter Suzanne Nolan Wisler at [email protected].