An almost universal first reaction to entering David Abers and Richard Loatman's home is amazement, tinged with sensory overload.

Their house, on a street in Trenton's Mill Hill section reminiscent of Society Hill, overflows with charm and intriguing architectural details.

With nutcrackers, too.

It all began innocently, as so many collections do. An aunt and uncle temporarily living in Germany sent Abers, their stateside nephew, a traditional wooden-soldier nutcracker as a Christmas present when he was about 12.

"It happened that they had become friendly with Mark Spitz, the Olympian, and he actually guided them to the place they found my present," Abers remembers, "so that definitely gave it even more allure."

And that might have been that. Except the seed had been planted, and Abers has spent the intervening years assembling a remarkable 490 nutcrackers. At Christmastime, they are largely clustered in the main living area, most arranged on a prominent (and very long) shelf.

"We scatter them throughout the house in other times of the year," Abers says, "but mostly they're always around us."

The collection includes a tiny, specialty rabbit-themed nutcracker from the venerable Steinbach Co. in Germany, along with Halloween nutcrackers, Statue of Liberty varieties, sports specimens (Eagles, Phillies, and Flyers), and a whimsical Snoopy nutcracker. Nary a duplicate in the bunch.

Appropriately, the home Loatman and Abers share seems custom-made for the unusual. Built in 1865, its very existence is a tale.

Time had ravaged not just this house, but its historic neighborhood. Back in the early 1980s, some cities promoted urban renewal, Trenton among them. Houses in need of extensive work were being sold at token prices.

Meanwhile, Loatman had decided he was tired of paying rent. So in 1982, he spotted an opportunity and paid exactly $100 to buy a dwelling vacant for five years and in wrack and ruin.

"The house had been divided into four apartments and had become a haven for squatters," Loatman recalls. "It was definitely not a pretty sight."

With the help of an architect friend, John Kemp of Trenton, a rehab began that would transform the wreck into a showplace, one that honors its heritage and also embraces the present.

Sweat equity was involved. Loatman, a musician with specialties in piano and voice, juggled his work - he has been a music director for more than 75 productions regionally - and did whatever he could on the renovations. Over time, the ugly duckling became a swan.

In December 1989, Loatman and Abers met through a production at Bristol Riverside Theatre, where Abers has been an actor and is now creative administrator. Three months after they worked together on a Christmas revue, Abers moved into the house.

Each level has its architectural surprises. Determined to make the home unique, Loatman created a curved wall on the main floor. "It meant bending wallboard," he says. "That was no easy task, but it worked."

Internal "bridges," including a floating one, connect spaces. A spiral staircase is a focal point. And bookcases are everywhere - some even handily camouflage wall irregularities.

On the second level, Loatman has carved out music-studio space. Now semiretired, he works with a select group of students.

The third floor is basically a loft space. The actual bedroom area is reached via an old library ladder the couple found on eBay. It's not for the faint of heart, but Abers, 55, and Loatman, 66, are both fit - and uncomplaining.

Along with creative architecture, the treasures its owners have amassed give this house enormous character.

In how many homes do merry-go-round horses coexist with antique radios, theater masks, cobalt-blue glassware, and illuminated manuscripts?

Loatman is a passionate and longtime collector of amusement-park miscellany, from carousel animals, to posters, to World's Fair artifacts. These enliven the home's walls and shelves, true, but Loatman also is so knowledgeable that a visit can become a fascinating educational experience.

And at Christmastime, when swags of greens hang, and lights twinkle, and yes, there are all those nutcrackers, the house takes on a special glow.

"We like to think that our home is definitely not boring," Abers says.

Absolutely no chance of that.