The comeback of Comely Bank
F or nearly 40 years, Paul and Jean Harris hosted Rotary board meetings and entertained visiting dignitaries in their home on Chicago’s South Side, which they affectionately called Comely Bank after the street where Jean grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. Today, the house stands in disrepair, its walls stripped to bare studs, as the group of Rotarians that owns it struggles to raise the money for a restoration.
“Comely Bank is the Mount Vernon of Rotary – it’s the home of our founder, and it’s too important an asset to not do something about it,” says Robert Knuepfer, 2010-11 governor of District 6450 (Illinois) and president of the Paul and Jean Harris Home Foundation.
After Paul Harris died in 1947, Jean sold the home. It remained in private hands until the spring of 2005, when the Harris Home Foundation, headed by local Rotarians who had frequently inquired about the house, purchased it with $500,000 borrowed from the charitable foundation of the nearby Rotary Club of Naperville. The group made some immediate structural repairs to the century-old, Tudor-style home, such as putting in a new basement floor and shoring up the old stone foundation, so the site would be safe for Rotarians visiting during that centennial year.
The Harris Home Foundation’s vision for the future is to restore the house to the way it looked in 1947, but with a few “special technical surprises,” as Knuepfer puts it. The foundation plans to digitize archival materials including videos, recordings of Harris’ speeches, and still photographs, and to install digital monitors in each room to show visitors what life was like there.
But without the money to complete the repairs, the restoration project has been at a standstill, the rooms littered with bundles of insulation and construction debris.
Rotarians of the Harris Home Foundation have embarked on a campaign to raise $3 million to pay off the debt and interest on the house, complete the renovations, and establish an endowment to pay for maintenance in perpetuity. When the restoration is complete, Knuepfer says, the home could be used as a meeting place for the RI Board and local or visiting clubs, and as a venue for Rotary Foundation functions. The Harris Home Foundation board also envisions creating a Rotary history trail, with stops at Comely Bank, the nearby gravesite of Paul Harris, and Room 711 at RI World Headquarters in Evanston – a re-creation of the office where the first Rotary meeting was held.