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At Home with Jay Morton & Mike Phillips

For Jay Morton and Mike Phillips, the ease of entertaining in their spacious Hartford home testifies to a life well lived and well traveled. The California transplants enjoy impromptu dinners that showcase a West Coast focus on simply prepared, delicious food, where the freshest ingredients pair with exquisite wines. A recent gathering exemplified these talents:

Caprese salad followed by pork tenderloin, with thyme and fruit from their Litchfield garden, acorn squash, and native apple pie. The Rome apples came from the couple’s own orchard. A sauvignon blanc by Hamel Family Wines—the couple are close to the owners of this boutique Sonoma vineyard—enlivened the meal. The back-to-basics menu underscored an enjoyable evening among friends where the only agenda was the pleasure of shared company.

For Morton and Phillips, the road to Hartford’s West End wound through twists and turns that speak volumes to their tenacity. Phillips works for Aon Hewitt as a strategic-thought leader; he helps Fortune 500 companies strategize health-care policy. Morton has worked in real estate for more than 30 years, and continues to operate a residential real-estate firm in California. They met 21 years ago in San Francisco and have been together ever since. Seven years ago the couple bought a farm in Washington, Conn., as a summer home. They had sold a chateau near Biarritz, France, and were looking for something on the East Coast of the U.S. After a fruitless attempt to participate in the ballooning Hamptons market, a friend in Roxbury suggested Litchfield County. Morton found a broker who showed them 17 houses in one weekend. They settled on the contemporary farmhouse they still own. After the sale of his insurance brokerage firm to Willis Insurance, Phillips moved to Hartford to work as a consultant, living in the Washington farmhouse. But the hour-and-a-half commute grew tiresome quickly.

Morton and Phillips bought their Hartford house in 2010 after a thorough search. “Jay fell in love with the West End. After I was offered a position with Aetna, he wanted to see what the city looked like,” says Phillips.

Although unfamiliar with Hartford, the two were drawn to the rich variety of architectural styles and to the history of the West End neighborhood. At the time, and despite the jittery market, there were few listings that met their requirements. “Because we’re childless,” quips Morton, “we didn’t want to pay the higher taxes of the suburbs.” They settled on a Colonial Revival masterpiece designed by and built for the architect Edward T. Hapgood in 1911. Hapgood’s other commissions included the Travelers Insurance buildings, the Connecticut State Library and Supreme Court buildings, and many West End and Hartford Golf Club Historic District residences.

The couple embarked on a full renovation of the house. Fortunately they were experienced in restoration projects; over the years, Morton has restored 12 houses. “We’ve always lived in older, architecturally interesting houses. New houses have never attracted us and the West End has the type of house we enjoy living in and restoring,” says Phillips. He adds that throughout their search, he had difficulty distinguishing the neighborhood boundary between West Hartford and Hartford, because many of the houses they considered were steps apart along the town border. Because of his background in real estate, Morton has always been attracted to the architecture of a house first and foremost. He studied history at the University of Michigan and later attended an architectural history program at Oxford. “I’m interested in architecture, architects and provenance, and the West End is perfect for all three factors,” Morton says.

The house had passed through tumultuous times. “It was a foreclosure, short sale, divorce and bankruptcy. There were four judges who had to approve the sale,” says Morton. The last owner had abandoned the house four months earlier. Once the next-door neighbors discovered that it was in foreclosure, they contacted the bank to communicate any potential interest. They even mowed the lawn.

After months of negotiations, the sale finally closed, whereupon an army of 22 painters, carpenters and masons descended on the house to begin work. They finished the interiors in December 2010 and continued the exterior renovations the following summer.

According to Morton, “The house wasn’t ruined. You can restore something that hasn’t been maintained, but it’s impossible to bring something back that’s been destroyed. Thankfully, no one had ever brutalized it.” Original fixtures, from brass doorknobs to nickel chandeliers, were left as Hapgood had designed them.

A Dutch door was replaced with glass, allowing for a direct sight line from the entry foyer through to the rear yard. “Before, there was a bad feeling. You entered and had no idea there was an acre and a half of lawn back there. It was just dark,” says Morton. In the rear, they removed a liner swimming pool that had been placed off-center, jarring the otherwise near-perfect symmetry. The house had once featured formal gardens tended by two fulltime gardeners. Photos given to Morton and Phillips by a previous owner show a lily pond and raised beds and paths lined with shrubs.

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