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It’s a house that actually seems to smile in welcome. Just a stone’s throw from the sprawling campus of Rowan University in Glassboro, the Victorian gem on a quiet street steps back to another century. The charming porch, the gingerbread trim and corbels, the outside color palette – a harmonious blend of two shades of green on most surfaces – and trim of yellow, eggplant and rose all suggest a gentler era.

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Tom and Liz O’Keefe

And if ever owners were protective of a legacy, Liz and Tom O’Keefe are those guardian angels.

Sometimes older homes beckon because of a love of tradition. Sometimes it’s the sense that being caretakers of the past is one of life’s noblest callings. And it can also be an overwhelming sense of mission that makes some homeowners decide that “bringing a home back” is their manifest destiny. The O’Keefes fit all of those categories.

After the home was purchased in 1994, and the couple couldn’t even move in for several months because the place was not habitable, they began what became a 10-year commitment to this gracious Victorian dowager.

“There’s always more to do,” smiles Liz. “There’s always the next project, the next room to finally complete. But we’re pretty much there.”

Then there are the demands of the grounds of this home. At first glimpse, the scope of the land behind and around the home is unclear. But upon closer look you find an estate-sized lot, only with none of the pretensions.

Tom and Liz O’Keefe added an outdoor sauna and pool to their expansive backyard

Tom and Liz O’Keefe added an outdoor sauna and pool to their expansive backyard

Here a workshop. There a blue-tiled pool shimmering in the summer sun and nearby, flowers bloom in a garden that is clearly loved but not pristine or fussy.

Then there are the beehives – yes, beehives – that are the pride and  joy of Tom, a passionate beekeeper. There are eight hives each containing 40,000 bees. That means some stings despite Tom’s proper protective gear but also the reward of glorious honey. Several local farm markets carry Tom’s liquid gold.

It’s hard work done in many steps, but this avid beekeeper also finds the world of bees both fascinating and instructive. Observing nature, including the coveted role of the queen bee, he says, is one of life’s fascinations.

Tom cares for eight hives containing 40,000 bees

Tom cares for eight hives containing 40,000 bees

Several feet from the bees you’ll find the outdoor sauna, built by Tom. It carries the scent of the woods that built it and the logs piled inside. Tom is a man who comes to wood the way a painter approaches his canvas: with respect and reverence.

Another outdoor attraction: at one end of the home is an exterior wall of rich stone featuring two welcome “intruders.” Unique chunks of multi-colored slag from the property’s past, worked into the stone, add instant interest and beauty to that wall.

This is clearly a place that’s lived in and loved – and also has a story to tell.

It was back in 1859 that brothers Thomas and Samuel Whitney, co-owners of the Whitney Brothers Glassworks, built a home in what we now call Victorian style. That home reflected the mid-19th century penchant for adornment, especially in the form of ornate wooden detail. The O’Keefe property is now one of the few in the immediate neighborhood that has been returned to its roots, both inside and out.

This couple, determined to become the guardians of their home’s proud heritage, shrug off that decade of complete and total devotion to their top-to-bottom renovation and restoration. It was, they clearly note, a labor of love, personal and proud. No detail was too trifling, no commitment too grand.

A majestic fireplace anchors the formal living room

A majestic fireplace anchors the formal living room

During the decade of ongoing work, there were periods when what is now the formal living room became a staging area for construction. Anything other than the most technical wiring and plumbing was on the O’Keefe’s to-do list. Anyone who has ever renovated a kitchen or added a bathroom will understand the magnitude of returning an entire property back to its era.

Step inside, past the expansive front porch with its detailed overhang and faithfully replicated period columns, through the rose-colored front door, and you’re instantly in another world.

It’s yesterday located around the corner from tomorrow – the latter, the extensive modernistic/futuristic growth of the Rowan campus just two minutes away.

From the foyer on, with its grand staircase and molded ceilings, the instant aura is Victoriana. It includes the intricately patterned wallpapers in various rooms, the sweep of mostly original wood floors and original windows, and the detail in ceilings, furnishings, even in bathrooms.

In one instance, a claw-foot bathtub was found through the couple’s constant searches. They go to auctions and estate sales and scan the Internet, too. But the icing on that claw-foot-tub cake was to actually complete it with the correct antique fittings they found and seized like pirates’ booty.

One of their proudest possessions – and justifiably so – is the magnificent crystal chandelier that hangs from the dining room ceiling. That ceiling is itself a work of art, with intricate plaster moldings that create a kind of tapestry.

The dining room’s crystal chandelier is one of the home’s showpieces

The dining room’s crystal chandelier is one of the home’s showpieces

Tom found the chandelier as it was about to be discarded from an older building. “I guess I saw the potential,” says Tom, who has that kind of innate eye for treasures. So he scooped up the hundreds of pieces, and sorted out what became a gigantic puzzle. In the process he created the dining room chandelier, one of this home’s true showpieces. The facets sparkle, the illumination is extraordinary and the fit in this 1859 house approaches perfection.

In each room, each area, there are stories behind the objects. Case in point: in a corner of the dining room sits a delightful “oddity.” It turns out to be an early telephone with its original casing, all of it resting on an ornate cabinet. The find was another triumph for Tom, who was at the time working in Alaska and again keeping an eye open to salvage treasures that were a lot more than what they seemed.

Recognizing the phone and its vintage, Tom led a contingent back to the dump where cartons containing other components had already been deposited. “And yes, we found all the pieces and reassembled the device,” Tom says with justifiable pride.

His wife, an English teacher and drama coach at Eastern High School, shares the passion and sense of adventure. Her discerning eye often spots the perfect wallpaper and coordinating fabrics that have made the home’s living room a true showplace.

A handsome print that combines deep jewel tones – cranberries and teals – establishes the feel and flavor of a Victorian parlor from the mid-1800s.

The room is anchored by a majestic fireplace, totally inspired and executed with Tom’s carpentry skills. Each element was painstakingly done by hand for a total effect of soaring columns, a rare rose marble hearth and raised panels that might be in a British men’s club.

Furniture pieces from Liz’s grandmother are scattered throughout the house and work perfectly with the period and mood. Delicious overstuffed chairs, period sofas and artwork that complements the period all blend to make this home an instant replay of 1859, when Abraham Lincoln was campaigning for president and Charles Darwin published “The Origin of Species.”

The kitchen is a perfect blend of old and new. Ten-foot ceilings overlook a wonderful rugged island created by Tom, who interlaced alternate strips of red oak and black walnut woods. Tom’s pride and joy is a massive Viking six-burner stove, which helps him fulfill his role of family chef.

Sparkling on kitchen window frames is a collection of old glass, so germane to this home whose original owners created the local industry. Some of the bottles, which range in color from blue and green to the characteristic brown of medicine bottles, were found during excavation for a backyard pool.

A small bowl on the kitchen counter holds dazzling multi-color remnants of glass, also uncovered during excavations of the property. Not the kind of accessories that can be bought – but priceless in their meaning and uniqueness.

1 122Glassboro_0215-1406Upstairs, the couple had the vision to open up a once-walled-off second-floor area with two bedrooms and a French country-style bath. A long wall holds another touchstone to the past: a gallery of several generations of family photos, each with a tale to tell. Tom’s son and grandson from a former marriage are frequent visitors to this home.

Up on the gabled third floor, Liz and Tom have created a private retreat. It is part bedroom and part den with wonderful views of the trees on their two-plus-acre property.

This is no ordinary home with no ordinary owners. Life on this property on State Street is a reminder of the grace and charm of a bygone era.

Liz smiles when asked whether it was all worth it – the dislocation, the hard labor, often done after she and Tom had worked full days – and the minor and major challenges of not just home improvement, but a 10-year odyssey back in time. Liz’s answer is a resounding yes. And so is Tom’s.

August 2013
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