You’d think the aging process stops once your face is cast in bronze and installed as a sculpture. The mustachioed Henry Flagler would stand forever dignified in front of the Key West Ferry Terminal. The larger-than-life Forgotten Soldier at Bayview Park, a salute to Key West’s Black Civil War soldiers, would never retire his Union uniform.
But time had taken its toll and tarnished Key West’s tributes to some of its earliest influencers. Sandy Cornish, Charley Toppino, Flagler, Stephen Mallory and the 35 others whose bronze busts sit atop pedestals in the Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden at Mallory Square were in desperate need of a little TLC.
The bronze had started to decay in some places. Faces became pitted and blemished by patches of green patina. The men in bronze continued to age — and not entirely gracefully.
Enter Davis Restoration, the family-owned conservation business that consists of Gerri Davis Bray, her husband Burt Bray and Gerri’s son, Alex.
The team spent the past week reviving scores of statues and sculptures — from the busts in the sculpture garden, affectionately known as the “Pez Garden,” and the military memorials at Bayview Park, to the Historic Seaport and the Key West Aquarium.
The sculptures and plaques that honor the island’s historical figures had been plagued by the island’s salt air, humidity, relentless sun and indiscreet birds.
“Key West’s climate is way worse for the bronze than in most other places,” Gerri said while working on the Forgotten Soldier at Bayview Park. Her late first husband, Andy Davis, was an artist and sculptor who taught Gerri and Alex how to preserve and maintain his works and those of others. Andy Davis died in a car accident years ago, killed by a drunk driver. The family conservation business continued, and when Gerri married Burt Bray, he joined the team as well.
Davis Restoration started in Atlanta, but is now based in St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, where the Brays live.
“But we go all over the Southeast conserving statues and sculptures,” Gerri said. “People and cities and businesses spend so much money on lawns and park maintenance and other things, which are certainly necessary, but they don’t always think about conserving and cleaning their sculptures. These are valuable pieces of art that really define and reflect the history and nature of a place. It says a lot about a place that invests in this sort of improvements and maintenance.”
Plus, Burt Bray said, “Many people and city leaders don’t realize how much attention and free advertising their sculptures receive due to the photos people take with them and post on social media.”
Every landmark and statue becomes an Instagram location, easily tagged and identified. Consider, for example, the lines of people waiting to photograph themselves at the Southernmost Point each day. And the majority of them move from the buoy to the Bishop Kee statue for their next photo. The same happens with Henry Flagler, the fountain at the aquarium and the military memorials.
Davis Restoration spent last week in Key West, moving from one location to the next. First, they hand-wash the piece with Dawn dishwashing liquid. Then they apply a special, UV-inhibiting wax and seal it with a heat gun that melds the wax to the bronze to offer lasting protection from the punishing environment.
“We love Key West, and we’ve been in touch with the city trying to make this happen since 2018, so we’re thrilled to be here now and the results speak for themselves.
The overall cost of the sculpture conservation was about $12,000, said Liz Young, director of the Florida Keys Council of the Arts. The cost was shared between the city of Key West and businessman Ed Swift, who owns Historic Tours of America, which paid for the conservation of the Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden, the Henry Flagler sculpture and the fountain at the Key West Aquarium.
For more before and after photos of the local sculptures, find Davis Restoration on Facebook.