Even before the front door is opened - even before one climbs the outside steps of the Spinelli home in Riverton - the dazzle begins curbside.

The wraparound porch, the gazebo - and in this season, the lights and decorations - all suggest that something magical is unfolding.

This is an exceptional place in any season, but at Christmas, the pre-Victorian home takes on a glow with an aura of yesteryears that blur present and future.

The soaring ceilings, the woodwork, the fireplaces and arches and crown moldings all explain why 700 visitors poured in for a holiday tour sponsored by the Riverton Free Library last year.

"Yes, we had a lot of company!" says Mike Spinelli, 69, who, with his wife, Cathy, 63, has devoted years to bringing the house back to its original grandeur, circa 1868.

The tale of how the Spinellis came to own the Second Empire period home is one of patience and persistence.

It was in 1986 that the couple, both educators - she at St. Joseph's University, he as a corrective reading specialist in South Jersey - first saw the home. Back then, it was almost completely hidden by overgrown shrubs.

"It was definitely not very inviting," Cathy recalls.

Still, they considered what the three-story house, divided into several apartments, could be as a unified whole.

But then they learned there was no high school in Riverton, and with four kids ages 4 to 10, it was a deal-breaker - at least for the moment. They bought it anyway, knowing that someday they would not be landlords with rental apartments.

Meanwhile, they purchased a home in Moorestown, where their children had a hometown high school experience.

In 2007, with their children out of the house, it was time to reclaim the rental as their own - but not until extensive renovations had been made, with Cathy and Mike shepherding every step of the process.

Today, the nine-bedroom home has been reconfigured so only the third floor remains an intact apartment. Now the flow is open, and the rooms are compatible with the way of life of a two-career, empty-nest couple - in other words, people who grade papers at home and like decorating for themselves - who love the hallmarks of its storied past.

Originally built by T. Henry Walnut for his mother-in-law, its grandeur had always been a source of pride to Rivertonians, who rejoice in the home's ongoing, painstaking restoration.

"There were times when it was discouraging," admits Mike, who recalls when the plaster on the dining room's ceiling arch was threatening to collapse. But the Spinellis were determined to find contractors who respected the home's tradition and would work to preserve it.

Cathy, an inveterate yard-sale seeker, takes pride in spotting period pieces and accessories that highlight the home's features. "It's definitely more fun, and more our style, to find great old pieces, rather than settle for poor reproductions."

Wander through the formal parlor/living room, family room, and music room, and the Spinellis point to their finds: an antique pump organ, chandeliers, even a headboard and footboard from a 17th-century bed in the master bedroom that they adapted to accommodate the taller folks of the 20th and 21st centuries.

An original dining room chandelier was relocated to the foyer, and a Spanish fixture found in an antiques shop took its place in a dining room furnished with early-20th-century period furniture.

"Cathy has an instinct for what will work," says Mike, who admits to initially questioning some of her purchases; for example, the elaborate birdcage that ultimately became the star of the master bedroom's accessories. But he also recognizes that she has an eye for style, proportion, and originality.

Both Spinellis exult over renovation "miracles," like the old doors they found in Philadelphia that perfectly fit the entrance to an addition of their redone kitchen area, a project that was a labor of love - and necessity.

Old houses do have quirks, and there were friends and colleagues who questioned whether they had, simply put, lost their minds to take on a house so demanding and complicated. Their three adult children - the couple lost a son to cancer eight years ago - have no interest in old houses.

But come Christmas, friends and family flock to see the wonderland the Spinellis create.

From top to bottom, inside to outside, the house is transformed. Mantels on the east and west wings of the porch are decorated, every chair is occupied by a Santa, snowman, or stuffed animal, and sleighs are all over the place. No wonder their 20-month-old grandson delights in visiting.

The home's indoor front stairway, lined with ancestor photos in antique frames, is decked out in garlands. Several decorated trees take up residence early in December, and Santas are aplenty. The formal living room, with period settees, a fireplace, and golden walls, takes on radiance.

"We definitely don't ignore Christmas," Cathy says wryly.

An annual New Year's Eve party also has become a neighborhood tradition.

"We really don't like to go out," Mike says. "And having this house filled with people is one of the best reminders of why we bought it. This is a home where good times are somehow even better."