Clayton Clark knows exactly which step squeaks in his Moorestown home, and has for decades - the one he was careful to avoid if the hour was late.
"It's wonderful - and a little strange - to come back and live in the same house where you lived as a child," says Clark, a Moorestown mortgage broker. He's pleased that now a third generation, daughter Annette, will learn its secrets.
Clayton and wife, Anne, both 52, have deep roots in Moorestown: It's where they grew up, were part of the same high school crowd, became sweethearts, and, ultimately, spouses.
But they could not have predicted they would be living on a quiet street on the east side in a dwelling that dates to 1920 and holds a storehouse of memories.
"People wonder whether it felt strange for me to move into a home that my in-laws owned," says Anne Clark. "But it really didn't. It somehow still feels very special, and right."
In 1988, after Clayton's mother suffered a debilitating stroke, the two-story house became difficult for her to keep up. It languished in a depressed real estate market for about a year before Clayton's older sister suggested to her parents that perhaps he and his new bride might consider buying it for themselves.
"We were living in a condominium in Medford and had never even dreamed of owning the house," Clayton recalls. But the notion took, and they found a workable financial arrangement.
In 1989, the senior Clarks, Stuart and Patricia, moved into a rancher across town; the newlyweds moved to the classic Colonial, with its gray stucco exterior and second-floor balcony.
"We knew that we would make some changes," recalls Anne, "and that felt a little awkward at first. I didn't ever want to hurt my in-laws' feelings."
But the younger couple wanted a lighter look and began to make the house their own, initially with cosmetic changes, later with structural ones.
Handsome moldings throughout the house, then painted colonial blue, were softened to neutral ivory. Interior wooden shutters gave way to lighter window coverings. And down the road, the wall-to-wall carpeting that stretched across the downstairs was lifted and the original wooden floors refinished, giving everything a new look.
Major projects included adding a bay window to the dining room and expanding living space in the kitchen by removing a screened-in porch and replacing it with an eating area.
Four small upstairs bedrooms yielded to three larger ones, including a master bedroom with a new volume ceiling. In the process came the discovery of a diamond-shaped window, formerly hidden by an attic wall, that became a master-suite focal point.
Annette, now off to Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, occupies a room she helped plan. Its sophisticated gray walls and a contemporary iron headboard, plus her own arresting photography, create the perfect environment for a 20-year-old rising college sophomore.
One thing was certain: Anne and Clayton were never going to tamper with the "bones" of this house, which his parents occupied for 40 years and which they have now owned for 25. Before they died, both of Clayton's parents had the chance to revisit their old home.
"They were thrilled with all the changes," says Anne, "and never once lamented anything we'd done."
The house is Christmas Central for the Clarks' sprawling immediate families - a total of 18 siblings and their spouses, along with Anne's parents. There are no small gatherings, especially when children are included.
Traces of the past are everywhere. A hutch owned by Clayton's grandmother still stands in the dining room, and furniture made by his famously handy father can be found throughout the home. A very special painting of the house by a local artist was passed from the senior Clarks to the junior.
One significant addition was made, however, on the front porch, where it rests on a stone pedestal. It is an Irish prayer given to Anne by her parents that sums up their hopes for the homeowners. It reads, in part:
"I wish you songs,
But also blessed silence,
And God's sweet peace,
When every day is done."