Restoration Specialist Jeffrey Morgan Brings History Back to Life

A lifelong resident of Litchfield County, restoration specialist Jeffrey Morgan specializes in rescuing and renovating historic 18th-century houses.

How did you become interested in historical homes? You could say I grew up at the fount. Litchfield is a living museum of great old houses. After studying art at Reed College, what led you to preservation design? I was working at my family’s photography shop, but my heart wasn’t in it. I saw a house for sale—one of Kent’s “first generation” houses. It was in pretty bad repair, but I suspected there were important architectural features to be found. Were you right? There was a corner cupboard in the front parlor that had been covered over at the back of a long dark closet. And under the plaster were original surfaces—unspoiled red paint—it was a real treasure trove. A renovation starts with removing additions. What happens next? First you do a “forensic exam,” looking for nail holes and little remaining scraps of wood that indicate the original partitions so you can reestablish the floor plan. Typically these homes didn’t have bathrooms, closets or even central heating. So you try to use secondary spaces—take over a lean-to, garret or the buttery/pantry. You run the ductwork subtly, use wood rather than metal grates or put radiant heating in the floors. Why is restoring the surface so critical? In order to re-create 18th-century paint, you need to get the right degree of shine or non-shine. Back then, paints were neither flat nor glossy and were ground by hand in small batches, so there might be variations of color throughout the room, unified with coats of varnish. A coat of paint out of the can looks awfully hard, you rub it back to create a patina, assess logical points of wear to create the illusion of age. You furnish very simply with antiques and items made locally. How do you make 18th-century wood furniture comfortable? You don’t have to suffer. There are period wing chairs to be found. To accommodate modern life, there has to be compromise. Where do you draw the line? The real rule is that you never do anything that can’t be undone: You wouldn’t sand the old wood floor. A sanded surface is permanent. And you don’t replace an original door because it’s two inches too short. You and your partner built a house from scratch. How did you incorporate your love of antiques? The house has many elements of 18th-century style, including a pulpit staircase with two turns that approximates the Wentworth stair and a chimney breast with two little pilasters over the mantel shelf that is modeled after one in an early house in Rhode Island. These restored houses require commitment and stewardship. What makes it worth the effort? The reward is a finished product with visual warmth, a sense of history and a particular light (or lack thereof) that is just beautiful. What kind of client should avoid preservation? Someone who can’t live without a 50-inch TV.