It's still a work in progress

All seemed perfect. But problems arose, and his thorough fixes delayed her decorating itches.

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Pam and Sam Verzella on the porch of their home, which they have worked on for 14 years. Sam,a construction manager, plans many of the projects. Pam, a speech pathologist, likes decorating. At left, Samantha, 13, sitsin the sunroom, whose exposed bricks are from the original chimney.

Like other couples, Sam and Pam Verzella complement each other.

Pam Verzella is the "Let's get it done" type. She wants results. If something is nagging her, like the ugly shade of orangey-pink in her living room, she'll gladly spend half the night repainting it.

Sam Verzella, on the other hand, will study a problem, tear whatever it is apart, and rebuild it - with added value.

Since Sam, 48, and Pam, 46, bought their home in trendy but quaint Haddonfield 14 years ago, each personality has been tested, time and again. But you'd never know it, what with the inviting, added-on open porch and its wicker furniture, the tastefully finished sunroom with exposed bricks from the original chimney, the cozy living and dining rooms. Until Sam and Pam tell their story, that is.

Daughter Katie, a junior at Haddonfield Memorial High School, was still a baby when the Verzellas moved into their three-story home. It was neat, tidy and didn't need any major work. Or so they thought. Pam, a speech pathologist at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in the city, was thrilled. She ached to decorate.

But when nasty winter weather hit, the couple found one inch of water in the basement. Soon after, a sewer line needed to be replaced.

Sam Verzella, a construction manager for L.F Driscoll Co., did more than eliminate the water. He replaced the slab, as well as the steps leading to the first floor.

Sam and his nephews dug out the slab in four-foot square sections. Dirt out, concrete in. Sam strapped the hot-water heater to the wall. Pam used a ladder to climb down from the first floor to the basement to do the laundry. When Katie got head lice, the constant need to use the washer drove Pam nuts. Up and down the ladder, up and down the ladder.

Around the same time, the roof went; prior owners had asphalted the cedar shingle surface, and it buckled. The roof wasn't ventilated. When Sam cut vents into the soffit, the heat roared out of the house so fast that "it almost knocked me off the ladder."

But he saw an opportunity. The roof became an A-frame, and another dormer was added to the existing one, with the help of a contractor.

Pam did a slow burn. "It's the basics," she says. "There was nothing to make the house look prettier."

More basics followed. The electrical service needed upgrading. Sam not only did that, but also added a dimmer to every light. He also installed, on every windowsill, low-voltage wiring for an electric candle. No cords lying across baseboards at Christmas time. "This is him to the nth degree," Pam says.

By this time, she had to see something decorative accomplished. So Pam and the couple's younger daughter, Samantha, painted the dining room a warm gold - right over the existing wallpaper.

"I don't ever want to hear about it," Pam says. "I was tired of waiting."

Sam's good with it, though. "I'm going to gut that room anyway," he said. "It will all come down."

Sam and Pam, married for 20 years, are good-natured as they tell their tale. All four family members lead a visitor upstairs to the current project in progress: the second-floor bathroom.

Originally, it was as "big as a postage stamp," Pam says. To make it larger, Sam broke through to the tiny room next to it. He divided the bathroom into two rooms, separated by a door: One has the toilet and bathtub; the outer room has a two-sink vanity. Earth-tone tiles line the floor and walls.

With three women in the family, the bathroom's design makes sense. (Sam's no fool: He's claimed for his own the bathroom that he added in the basement.)

Katie, 16, and Samantha, 13, take the constant construction activity in stride. "We woke up one morning and found the living room a different color," Samantha says.

The bathroom work "completely ruined sleep patterns," Katie says. A predawn trip meant descending three flights of steps to Dad's spot in the basement. By the time she got back to bed, she says, she was completely awake.

It is in the basement that Sam plans his projects. It's the neatest 175 square feet you're ever likely to see. His electrical cords are folded, tied and hung. Little boxes containing nails and other small items line a shelf. The floor shows no dust.

"I've done all the work in this house from here," he says.

On a wall hangs a note from Samantha, written when she was 5 years old. No marks, no creases, no dirt.

And in that space are his father's tools. Sam's dad, who passed away a few months ago, also worked for Driscoll. When he died, Sam and his siblings couldn't part with those tools: Their father had taught them how to use them.

So, to help their mother financially, Sam's relatives auctioned off the tools among themselves. Sam got his father's router, a planer to bevel wood doors, antique logging tools, and "dumb things like a battery charger."

"It's still all in the family," he says.

As couples do, Sam and Pam say they have changed over the years. The girls keep him running, and frankly, Sam doesn't have the energy he once did for these major projects.

As for Pam, being a designer-in-waiting was a good idea, she acknowledges.

Before, she would have "wanted Queen Anne" in the dining room. Today, she loves her round table with the straight-back, cloth-covered chairs.

But when Sam gets ready to gut the kitchen. . . .


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