When Debra Epstein, a doctor, and her husband, architect Charles Gross, were house-hunting and walked into the home they now own, both felt an instant click.
The stone fireplace that soared in the living room won Debbie's heart. For Chuck, it was the possibilities. It was his architect's eye that saw not what was, but what could be.
Set on a two-acre lot on a quiet street in Moorestown, the home instantly appealed to him because of its placement on the land and orientation to the sun. He also envisioned a special area: a garden room, which didn't even exist when they signed on the dotted line back in 2000.
Today, the couple and their son, Will, 20, and daughter, Leah, 18, are enjoying the fruits of Chuck's architectural labors in a home with enormous charm, large open areas, and huge doses of creativity in design and decor.
The couple met at a Chicago synagogue while Debbie was completing her medical training and Chuck was working for an architecture firm. It was love at first sight. "He kept staring, and I stared right back," Debbie recalled.
Now, family milestones, parties, and holidays such as Hanukkah, which begins on Dec. 25 this year, are celebrated in the home they love.
For Hanukkah, candles are lit for eight nights to celebrate the rededication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem centuries ago. Hanukkah menorahs - the candle holders associated with the holiday - are treasured, especially those that reach back to early artistic efforts by Will and Leah.
Typically, celebrations move from place to place in a home that has so many welcoming areas.
That stone fireplace that attracted Debbie from the start is a focal point of a casual living room that is one of several informal gathering spaces.
Will, a student in a joint liberal arts program at Dartmouth College and Colby College, and Leah, a graduating senior at Moorestown High School with a passion for crew, both recall the long journey to their home as it is now.
"Our dad is a perfectionist, so nothing happens really quickly," observed Will, noting that while the extensive renovations Chuck initiated were supposed to be finished in a year or two, that was not quite the scenario.
"We lived with floor plans pasted on the kitchen walls," Leah recalled of what became the four-year plan, and then some. It also included an extensive redesign and addition to the kitchen, a most disruptive but ultimately satisfying undertaking.
The entire process yielded the family a home they all love, and one planned for the empty-nest stage and beyond.
"My late mother stressed to us that a first-floor bedroom really was a wonderful gift in later years, and we did listen to that," says Debbie.
One goal was the family's determination to introduce decorative surprises.
A kimono hangs on one living room wall and creates instant drama. The dining room has vivid red walls contrasted with black furniture and a gold-leaf tray ceiling that makes its own statement.
While colors were muted in their earlier house, also in Moorestown, Debbie and Chuck agreed to be more bold and varied in this one.
The family room/den has autumn hues and is the default kickback space for everyone, with casual sofas long enough to accommodate Chuck and Will, both six-feet-plus.
Just beyond that room is the sunroom Chuck designed to take full advantage of the light and the outdoor views. Debbie, a self-described plant-killer, is ecstatic that now, plants thrive everywhere.
The master bedroom suite was relocated from its original upstairs location. A high ceiling, acres of space, and a 6-foot-by-8-foot shoji panel screen on one wall all make a dramatic statement.
Then there's a sybaritic master bath that feels more like a luxury spa and a walk-in shower, with materials like slate and travertine marble. Glass-block windows offer privacy, yet bring the light in.
The home's wonderful entry offers a glimpse of a reading nook tucked away on the second floor.
These days, Chuck has yet another project. The family bought a second home in Holgate on Long Beach Island just a few months before Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012. Along with the necessary repairs, Chuck also began a redesign of the seashore house, which the family, and especially Debbie, turn to for R and R. "It's our happy place."
The clan knows that the family architect isn't content unless he's changing and rethinking space. For Chuck, that's not a chore, but rather a reflex and a joy.
"And even if we complain sometimes, we're grateful," says Debbie, "that when he finishes, everything always is so much better than it was."