By RI President’s Representative and Past District Governor Robert C. Knuepfer, Jr.
Paul Harris was the founder of Rotary Club of Chicago. He and his wife, Jean, lived at their home which was located on the south side of Chicago in the historic Ridge neighborhood. It was named Comely Bank after the street by the same name in Edinborough, Scotland where Jean Harris grew up. The home was built in 1905, the year Rotary was founded, and the Harris’ lived there for 35 years, from 1912 to 1947, when Paul Harris passed away in the home, following a long illness.
The Harris’ entertained many visiting dignitaries, including heads of state, captains of industry and Rotarians from around the world. The early meetings of Rotary took place there as it grew from the Rotary Club of Chicago to a global organization.
The first president of the Rotary Club of Chicago, Sylvester Schiele, lived behind Comely Bank, and there was a well-worn path between the yards from traversing back and forth from home to home to charter the future course of Rotary.
In his last days, Paul Harris asked that his bed be placed by the window of his bedroom, overlooking the Harris’ beloved Friendship Garden. A few months after his death, Jean sold the home and then returned to Scotland to live with her brother, a Presbyterian minister. On the eve of the Rotary International Centennial Convention in 2005, the home became available for sale, and The Paul and Jean Harris Home Foundation was created and purchased the home for $550,000.
Since then, the Foundation has been quietly raising funds to pay for the renovation to restore the home to what it looked like when Paul and Jean lived there in the 1940s. The current status of the residence is in disrepair, and undergoing much-needed renovations. Much of the early investment was made in the infrastructure, including rebuilding the foundation. The Paul and Jean Harris Home Foundation is working to raise $5 million dollars to help pay off the debt and interest on the house, complete the much-needed renovations, and establish an endowment to pay for operations and maintenance in perpetuity. Once restored, the 2,808-square-foot home will offer a unique venue for Rotary meetings and events. Exhibits will tell the remarkable story of Paul Harris and the founding of Rotary.
In recent years, Rotary International has agreed to support the restoration of the Harris Home. At its November 2012 Board meeting, Rotary International agreed to loan the Harris Home Foundation $500,000 to progress the renovation and provide support in identifying prospective donors to the project. As an integral part of Rotary history, the home could become part of a larger Rotary history tour that would include visits to Rotary International headquarters in Evanston, Illinois; the Rotary Club of Chicago, the very first Rotary club, or one of the 180 Rotary clubs in the Chicago area; and the gravesites of Paul Harris and cofounder Silvester Schiele in Blue Island.
If you would like to join us in our campaign to “Restore the Legacy” and the Paul Harris Home, please visit the Donate page.