It Feels Like Home

Elegance meets comfort throughout Dan and Debbie Hillenburg’s custom residence

By Jon Shoulders

»In the back hallway of Dan and Debbie Hillenburg’s Franklin home, a large tree is painted, with framed pictures of their 18-month-old granddaughter, Madeleine, carefully positioned to appear as if hanging from its many branches. Perhaps no better example could serve to symbolize the couple’s aesthetic vision while conceptualizing the 6,800-square-foot home, which features a finished basement, four bedrooms and three-and-a-half bathrooms. “We wanted something with plenty of style, but also something familiar and livable that would always make us feel like we’re at home,” Dan says.

In the spring of 2013, the Hillenburgs broke ground on a plot of land near The Legends Golf Club’s 27-hole course, and a six-month construction process began under the direction of Johnson County-based builder Rick Campbell. “We didn’t really have an idea of what we wanted as far as a floor plan, so at first we started driving around looking at homes,” Dan recalls. “We came across one that Rick had done that was under construction at the time, and we asked Rick if we could take that floor plan as a starting idea and change some small things, and he said yes. It took us about a month to get the final floor plan nailed down.”

The result is a practical home design with attached two-car garages on both sides — one of which serves as a workshop for Dan’s woodworking hobby, while the other features a finished attic that currently serves as a storage space. From the earliest days of the design process, the Hillenburgs kept in frequent communication with Campbell and designer Brian Haggard, owner of Windsor Home Interiors, to ensure a unique result. “One of the coolest things about the house is that every single room is so detailed,” Campbell says. “Every bit of the interior trim is custom designed, whether it’s the built-ins, the corbels or the cabinetry. We took each room and tried to find as much character as we could to separate it from the other rooms. That’s quite a bit different from what I normally do, which is look at the overall picture of the home.”

In addition to new furniture, Debbie and Dan incorporated several special pieces from their previous house near Franklin’s Hillview Country Club into their current home’s décor, including chairs and lamps for the central living space that belonged to Debbie’s mother, her grandmother’s antique rocker for one of the guest bedrooms and her mother’s desk for the master bedroom.

A granite fireplace and furniture displaying a wealth of warm browns, golds and tans complete the ground floor living area, which flows seamlessly into the kitchen, thanks to an open floor plan concept. Plenty of dark wood kitchen cabinetry complements multiple hanging light fixtures, tile backsplashes and a spacious, L-shaped island with a granite top and stools for extra seating. “I found all of the light fixtures and doorknobs in the house online myself, and I love to be able to dim the lighting so we have rheostats on every single light,” Debbie says.

To help strike the right balance between style and comfort, the Hillenburgs enlisted Haggard, who, in approximately two hours, painted the tree depicted on the main level’s back hallway that is now embellished with a growing number of pictures of Madeleine. “Brian had no shortage of ideas, such as all the cabinets, doors and woodwork are knotty alder, which is a little different,” Dan says. “A lot of people look at the cabinets and say we have holes in them, and we tell them they’re knot holes and they’re supposed to be like that. I think small imperfections like that add character.”

Even a simple walk down the basement steps reveals the distinctive input Haggard brought to the home’s design, having cut and converted individual carpet runners into unique stair carpeting. Personal touches enhance the basement level’s aesthetic, including old family photos, a wooden cabinet in the guest bedroom that belonged to Debbie’s grandmother, an old church pew that Dan converted into a bench, and two walk-in pantries flanking a six-seat bar that feature images of lions, representing the mascot of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Dan’s fraternity at Indiana State University. 

Home building is nothing new to Debbie, 64, and Dan, 66, both central Indiana natives and high school sweethearts during their days attending Southport High School. After obtaining an associate degree in business at Indiana State University, Debbie went to work for her family’s business, Davidson Lumber Co., founded by her grandfather in Southport in 1925. Dan joined Davidson after studying industrial technology at Indiana State and spending 10 years as a home builder, and the couple remained with the company until their mutual retirement in 2005.

Having lived in Johnson County for most of their lives, including 22 years in their first home — for which they oversaw the design and building process — and a custom home near Hillview Country Club where they resided for 18 years after that, the Hillenburgs have come to appreciate their southside surroundings. “It’s nice and quiet here, and of course the interstate is close so you can get to Indianapolis and other places quickly,” Dan says.

Since retiring they have taken full advantage of their increased free time, including trips to a family cabin in Canada built by Debbie’s grandfather in 1961, winter sojourns in Phoenix and visits from their son, John, his wife, Laura, and their granddaughter, Madeleine. “We love to entertain and have friends over, too, either down in the basement for Colts parties or just hovering around the kitchen talking,” Debbie says.

Dan adds that he and Debbie originally planned to downsize from their previous home’s 3,500 square feet, but feel the results of their collaborative efforts are worth the unexpectedly larger layout. “We somehow ended up downsizing to almost 7,000 square feet,” Dan says with a laugh. “But we love the way it’s laid out. It feels right. Brian (Haggard) was here recently and asked us if it finally felt like home, and we said, ‘Without a doubt.’”