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A Pennsauken Victorian reblooms under its owners' deft touch

Artist Deborah Moss Marris in the home studio of the Victorian in Pennsauken she and husband Mitch Marris restored.
Artist Deborah Moss Marris in the home studio of the Victorian in Pennsauken she and husband Mitch Marris restored.Read moreElizabeth Robertson / staff

Life can be so random. And often is.

One day in 1985, on his way to work as a sales representative for a cement company, Mitch Marris drove past the area in Camden County where Merchantville and Pennsauken meet. There, in Pennsauken, he spotted a circa-1890s Victorian for sale with interesting angles and loads of character.

He decided to return to that house for a look inside. Never mind that it was obviously in poor condition. Living in an apartment near the Italian Market in South Philadelphia had served Mitch and wife Deborah's growing family well, but it was time for a change.

Had he taken a different route that day, life now might be quite different. But the Marrises realized that Mitch had spotted a treasure, and one at a price they could afford. A definite milestone day in their lives.

"This house just seemed to beckon," says Deborah, an artist and teacher who shared her husband's instincts about it.

Once the house was theirs that summer, the couple worked from the outdoors in, cleaning up an overgrown and neglected but expansive yard and garden. By October of that year, they had moved in and had begun tackling the Victorian's interior — a labor of valiant effort, but yes, also of love.

Mitch remembers a "feeble" heating system, a terrible kitchen, and equally terrible wall coverings. But, still, they found reason for gratitude: The Victorian's high ceilings, moldings and other circa-1890s amenities were intact.

Like so many owners who have the courage to tackle older homes, this couple discovered that there was very little that didn't need TLC. More and more projects tumbled their way, and the deeper into improvements they went.

Today, visitors might never guess the effort it took to recreate the house, with its five first-story rooms, four on the second floor, and two large rooms in the now-finished attic.

It didn't hurt that Deborah Moss Marris, 61, is an accomplished artist with a bachelor of fine arts degree from Moore College of Art and Design and an MFA from Syracuse University; currently, she is a professor at Camden County College in Blackwood and also an art teacher at Westfield Friends School in Riverton.

Her expertise as a decorative painter/color consultant is evident here, and her choices of rich, vibrant colors and muted softer tones happily coexist.

And family-friendly features still work, well over a full century after the house was built. There are gathering places, a feeling of connection, a livability in this Victorian. Even terriers Mike and Maeve seem to know they are lucky dogs, indeed, to be sharing these spaces with the Marrises and their daughters, Caroline, Katherine and Eliza.

Another perk: The attic has offered a kind of "dormitory" to those daughters, their own private world.

Deborah, the artist, admits that having a first-floor studio with plenty of light was her dream. She shifted from a darker smaller space and loves every inch of it.

Then there's this: The ever-evolving dwelling is a kind of gallery for Deborah's works, which were recently on display at the Moorestown Community House during a celebration of the arts. The Marris house itself is an extension of that celebration, with Deborah's eclectic works everywhere.

An oversized painting of striking tangled underbrush has a perfect home in the family sunroom, a recent addition that has added prime space for viewing a deep, lush yard. Creatively painted chairs and stools find their own artistic place there.

Mitch, 62, proudly says that "the most gratifying part of the whole experience of this house has been in sharing it and working together with such a creative person as my wife."

Alongside traditional and handsome furniture is far more quirky and unexpected decor, just as pops of color live happily withe more stately browns and neutrals. The lightness of contemporary pieces is counterbalanced by arresting Oriental rugs that themselves feel like art.

Handsomely textured walls throughout the house are precisely the kind of surprises that spring from an artist's point of view. The dining room walls are a case in point.

Based on the home's original look, Deborah used a color-wash technique that imparts tones of gold, rose and bronze to create a glow that's almost magical. The walls are a perfect blend with the room's spectacular patterned ceiling.

It was quite a job to get from the house that needed so much TLC to the home that exudes such joyful charm today. And given all it took, it's not a project they might repeat. But Deborah and Mitch still are grateful for Mitch's ride to work that long-ago morning that brought them to their Pennsauken haven.

"Maybe someday, we'll live in a place where the windows are new and easily cleaned and dust is at a minimum," Mitch says somewhat wistfully.

But somehow, one wonders whether he really means it.