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Renovating an 1890 Victorian in South Jersey meant living for years in a construction zone

Living in a construction zone “gets old really fast,” says homeowner Victoria Barnes. “But I love it, am so glad we did it, and will absolutely do it again.”

The porch of the Merchantville home after renovation. The couple repainted inside and outside to replace dark colors with more neutral light shades.
The porch of the Merchantville home after renovation. The couple repainted inside and outside to replace dark colors with more neutral light shades.Read moreCourtesy of Victoria Barnes

Victoria Barnes had no idea what she was getting into when she and her husband, Paul Keifrider, bought a Victorian home in Merchantville in 2012. The house was built in 1890, and they knew it needed work. Keifrider is extraordinarily handy and loves tackling large projects, but Barnes hadn’t envisioned living in a construction zone for almost eight years.

“It had 9-foot ceilings, nice big rooms, and plenty of potential,” recalled Keifrider, 59, who works for a printing company and did the renovations during his free time. “I like to take a project and, like clay, mold it into something that has my signature on it.”

Said Barnes, 43, who chronicled the reconstruction on her blog: “It violates his sense of rightness in the universe when people don’t maintain old structures.”

The couple moved all their belongings into the front two rooms of the home’s lower level, and Keifrider started work on the third floor.

“Literally the day after we moved in, Paul built scaffolding ... and started ripping the roof off,” Barnes said.

They finished the top floor of the 2,500-square-foot home in about nine months. The space now serves as Barnes' office, yoga studio, and a warm hangout for her cat, Fat Man, and the kittens she fosters. The couple then moved on to the second floor’s three bedrooms and bathroom.

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“I now have a PhD in toilets,” Barnes said jokingly, recounting the research she did when designing her bathroom. She created a medicine cabinet/storage area between the wall studs to retain the original charm of the house but ensure they had enough storage space to remain organized.

They quickly repainted the rooms' dark shades with a creamy light yellow. Barnes, whose favorite pastime is scouring Craig’s List for unique furniture and accessories, discovered incredible, reasonably priced treasures to honor the home’s Victorian heritage.

“I love huge furniture and carved, dark rosewood, and I needed replacement pieces — missing door knobs or a match for the doors,” she said. “I became completely obsessed with the beauty of old things. I understand the appeal of going to Restoration Hardware and buying a bunch of stuff that’s new and easy and finished, but it’s way cheaper to furnish your home with antiques. To me, it’s so much more appealing.”

The home is a treasure trove of finds, from massive pieces of furniture to intricate door hinges to stunning mirrors. One of her favorite purchases was a Victorian square piano. They turned the instrument into their kitchen island by taking out the guts and retrofitting and customizing it with drawers.

“I could not love it more, and it was free beyond the grunt work of moving it,” Barnes said.

The kitchen, still in the final stages of renovation, is the couple’s favorite room.

“It looks nothing like a kitchen,” Barnes said. “It’s this amazing room with beautiful furniture that, to me, is art. I have these ridiculous sconces that I just love. I walk into that room and can’t believe it’s my house.”

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The refrigerator face is paneled to fit in. “It’s more like a living space that doesn’t say, ‘You’re in the kitchen now,’” Keifrider said. “That’s one of the most interesting things about it. It’s functional, light and airy. Victoria found this huge mirror — how many people have something like that in their kitchen? It’s just unusual.”

A self-described homebody, Barnes enjoys spending time in her home with her husband and cats. “But my husband is social, so we do have people over,” she said. She recently undertook a huge decluttering — “getting rid of anything that doesn’t bring me pure joy.”

They adore their Merchantville community, the old homes, walkability, proximity to Philadelphia, and wonderful neighbors. “It’s a small town," Barnes said, "and we are always surprised at how many people from Merchantville go out of their way to stay in Merchantville, whether downsizing or looking for a bigger house.”

Though Barnes would never encourage anyone to live through the kind of renovation they did, she has no regrets.

“I do not recommend living in a house while you are doing massive construction to it. It gets old really fast,” she said. “But I love it, am so glad we did it, and will absolutely do it again. Now I’m so much better educated.”

Have you solved a decorating, remodeling, or renovation challenge in your home? Tell us your story by email (and send a few digital photographs) to