Where Things Happen: A Home For The Helmans

By+Kathe Brunton

A house wraps its arms around you and over time becomes a home. Through the long lens of 33 years, Jeff and Jamie Helman reflect on their life together and the home they built in 1995, where they raised three daughters, entertained family and friends, hosted charitable fund-raising parties and church groups – and from where they are now ready to move on.

The memories abound. There, in the circular music room, with its nearly floor-to-ceiling windows, they recall young Maddie learning to play the grand piano. There, at the large round table in the kitchen, they reminisce about teenager Kaley’s boyfriend meeting the parents and getting not only grilled chicken, but a subtle grilling of his own. And there, at the study carrel that is hemmed by the girls’ bedrooms on the second floor, they remember Courtney working many a late night to pass her exams.

Today, the eldest daughter, Kaley, is 24 and expecting her first child. Courtney, 21, is a junior at college, and Maddie is 16 and on the verge of getting her driver’s license.

“We’ve spent 14 years in this house, and we’re ready to move on,” Jamie said. “We don’t need this much space anymore, and there’s so much more technology now for homes.”

Technology for the housing industry is something that Jeff and Jamie know about. Jeff is a Ball State educated architect and founder of Helman Sechrist Architecture in Elkhart. Jamie is a master potter and CFO of Jeff’s business, and she has just opened her own gift shop in Granger, Orange Tree Gifts at Centennial Plaza, where she represents artists from across the country.

Spending 14 years in one place is quite a stretch for the Helmans. They first met in 1976 while in high school – she at Concord and he at Elkhart Central. They dated for several years, then married after Jamie graduated from Saint Mary’s with a bachelor’s in fine arts and while Jeff was finishing his last two years at Ball State. In the first 12 years of their marriage, they lived in nine houses. Only two (including the current one) were built from scratch and the others were “flippers” or substantial remodels.

Still, it will be difficult to leave this beautiful home that is nestled in a wooded subdivision in Mishawaka.

Like its owners, the exterior of the house is welcoming, with its East Coast shingle style and wrap-around porch where white wicker chairs and chaise longues beckon.

“The porch birthed the whole house, actually,” Jeff said. “We started there when we designed the house and the rest just came from it. The porch provides a connection between the inside and the out, and we spend a lot of time there in good weather.”

Inside, the easy flow of the house is complemented by Jamie’s artistry in color selection and design. For example, a deep blue graces the walls of the intimate dining room, while lavender, light tangerine and yellow adorn the living area where a fieldstone fireplace lends a bit of coziness to the vaulted room.

The home’s mission/craftsman style is further emphasized throughout by cabinets, bookcases and trim that are constructed of a warm maple and cherry wood combination.

The cheery and expansive kitchen features sand granite countertops and that large round table where new boyfriends were “inquisitioned” and where every “big time family discussion” occurred.

“All the good, the bad, the happy – it happened here at this table,” Jamie said. “We call it the judgment table.”

In fact, Jeff finds the kitchen to be so much the core of their home that in future designs for his family, he’ll consider cutting the living room in half and making the kitchen larger. “We spend a lot of time in here,” he said.

Concealed behind two large cabinet doors in the kitchen is a baking center, which contains a spacious area for mixing ingredients, and shelves and drawers that hold all the baking utensils and equipment one could need. A delightful feature for just about anyone, the baking center for the Helmans was a necessity, since one of the daughters used to require gluten-free food.

To make it easy for Jamie to multi-task in her many roles as mom, baker, wife, artist and business partner/owner, the Helmans created a light-filled office for her use near the kitchen. (Jamie’s CFO duties for Jeff’s business lessened when daughter Kaley, an accounting graduate, joined Helman Sechrist two years ago, paving the way for her to dream up Orange Tree Gifts.)

Beyond the kitchen and Jamie’s office is a mudroom that leads to the garage.

“This is the ‘Drop Zone,’” Jeff said, spreading his arms wide. Wooden lockers like those found in schools grace this space, one for each daughter. Yet the area is as warm and welcoming as the front entrance. Jeff explained. “This area is functional, bright and pleasant. Where you come into your home – usually off the garage – should be just as pleasing as where guests come in,” he said.

Stairs near the mud room lead to the second floor, which has three bedrooms, three baths and the study carrel. Another set of stairs takes one to the finished basement, decorated in a red, white and black Coca-Cola theme, and which serves as a great gathering space for the daughters and their friends. Here, too, is another music room where Jeff, as an amateur guitarist, rips a few riffs with his band buddies. Back on the main level on the opposite side of the house is the master bedroom and bath, as well as a 1,000-square-foot addition (built in 2000) that serves as Jamie’s studio and, prior to Orange Tree, a gallery for her pottery and ceramic work.

As the second home they’ve built together, Jeff and Jamie have learned a few things about how to work together on such a huge and highly detailed project.

“We know where the battle lines are drawn better than we used to,” Jeff said. “There’s confidence and trust now. Still, there are hills I’ll die on and others I won’t. It’s the same for Jamie.”

But what exactly is the difference between designing a house for a client and doing one for yourself?

“The difference is that I get to apply the architectural principles and I get to live them. We design for other people every day. To do your own home is like getting to eat your own cooking. It’s more consequential,” Jeff said.

He added that you really have to think about how a home works and functions for you. “It’s 20 times harder to do it for yourself,” he said. “Many times, in designing this home, I was stumped. It was like having writer’s block. I was nervous because you know your home is going to represent you. People will judge you by it. It’s exhilarating and at the same time terrifying.”

Of course, it’s one thing to build a house and it’s another to make it a home.

“For me, the difference between a house and a home is that a home provides much more emphasis on family and friends,” Jeff said. “We are very active in our church and for nine years, we hosted small group opportunities for high school kids, which actually strengthened our relationship with our daughters. This house has always been where things happen. Now, we want to create another place that would be a hub, a magnet for family and friends.” A home.