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Rotary History

A Home for Headquarters

The idea that Rotary should own its headquarters dates back at least to the 1920 convention, when Albert Adams, 1919-20 Rotary president, told attendees that he hoped to someday see the headquarters in a beautiful building of Rotary’s own.

“It sounds like a dream, doesn’t it?” he said. “But it can be done.”

Rotary’s worldwide presence, and the number of secretariat staff members working to support it, would grow considerably by the time the idea became a reality in the 1950s.

The Chicago years

The National Association of Rotary Clubs — now Rotary International — formed in 1910 and had its headquarters in the Chicago, Illinois, USA, office of its secretary, Chesley R. Perry. In March 1911, Rotary’s headquarters moved to rented space in the First National Bank Building, one of many downtown Chicago rentals.

In 1914, Rotary set up its headquarters in the Karpen Building on South Michigan Avenue. During its nine years there, the staff grew to 78 people, and Rotary expanded beyond North America and Europe to Asia, South America, Africa, and Oceania. Citing increasing rent after World War I, Rotary moved to the Atwell Building in 1923, then to several more buildings after that.

After so many moves, some Rotary leaders began to call for a world headquarters that RI itself would own. Delegates at the 1921 convention attempted to pass a resolution to purchase a site for a building of Rotary’s own, but they were unsuccessful. The 1928 convention delegates adopted a similar resolution, which had two notable conditions: There would be no increase in the per capita tax or assessment on clubs, and the site was to be in Chicago. A committee was formed and potential locations identified, but the Depression and the U.S. entry into World War II delayed any further action.

The search begins

Finally, in 1943, the debate over sites got underway when the RI Board appointed a headquarters committee consisting of 1939-40 RI Director Roy Weaver from Colorado, 1942-43 RI Director Fred Haas from Nebraska, and 1935-36 RI President Ed Johnson.

Around the time of his appointment, Johnson sent a letter to other past presidents sharing his vision for a building for Rotary in Evanston, a suburb north of Chicago and near the campus of Northwestern University. He appealed to the financial sensibilities of ownership and to the sentimental opportunity to dedicate a building to Paul Harris, Rotary’s founder. He also proposed that sponsoring the building could become an objective of The Rotary Foundation, which at the time had no regular programs.

The 1944 convention delegates approved expanding the headquarters search beyond Chicago. Thirty clubs expressed interest in having the headquarters located in or near their cities. Committee members visited seven of the cities and ultimately recommended Denver, Colorado, USA, as the site for headquarters.

The recommendation surprised members and the Chicago community. The group representing Chicago met with the Board and highlighted the city’s status as a financial and transportation center accessible by rail and air. Representatives also reinforced the connection between Rotary and the city, noting that “Chicago business and civic leaders have a justifiable pride centered in the fact that Rotary is an offspring of Chicago.”

Proposals to relocate to Denver were debated at length and finally rejected at the 1946 and 1947 conventions.

Making Evanston home

In January 1952, the Board decided to “immediately and energetically” begin looking for land or a building in Chicago or the vicinity. That August, a lot was purchased in Evanston. The November issue of The Rotarian (as Rotary magazine was then known) previewed sketches and details of the new three-story building, which was distinguished by a large granite staircase, monolithic columns, and angled building wings. Inside the building were modern systems and features, including an acoustic ceiling treatment and air conditioning.

Rotary leaders gathered at 1600 Ridge Avenue for a groundbreaking ceremony in 1953, and the building opened in August of the following year. In that first month, 250 Rotary members and friends visited to see it for themselves.

Despite initial room to grow and a later addition, Rotary eventually outgrew that space. In 1987, Rotary purchased the building on Sherman Avenue in Evanston from Baxter Travenol Laboratories. Known today as One Rotary Center, that building is still home to Rotary International World Headquarters and welcomes more than 2,000 visitors a year. Learn how to schedule a tour.

Rotary world headquarters locations

Some former locations are still commercial or office space, while others have been converted to private residences.

1910: Chesley R. Perry’s office, LaSalle Street, Chicago
1911: First National Bank Building, South Dearborn Street and Monroe Street, Chicago (now demolished)
1913: Fort Dearborn Building, South Clark Street and Monroe Street, Chicago (now demolished)
1914: Karpen Building, South Michigan Avenue, Chicago
1923: Atwell Building, Cullerton Street and Prairie Avenue, Chicago
1928: Chicago Evening Post Building, West Wacker Drive near Wells Street, Chicago
1934: Jewelers’ Building (previously the Pure Oil Building), East Wacker Drive, Chicago
1954: Ridge Avenue, Evanston
1987: One Rotary Center, Sherman Avenue, Evanston

In addition to its headquarters in Evanston, Illinois, USA, Rotary International has several offices worldwide.

  1. Guy Gundaker (with trowel), 1923-24 RI president, prepares to lay the cornerstone of the Ridge Avenue building in Evanston, Illinois, USA. 1954.

  2. A.Z. Baker (center), who would serve as 1955-56 RI president, breaks ground for the new Rotary International World Headquarters building on Ridge Avenue in Evanston, Illinois, USA, in 1953. The headquarters remained there until 1987, when it moved to Sherman Avenue in Evanston.

  3. Staff members at the world headquarters on Ridge Avenue, Evanston, Illinois, USA. 1954.

  4. Staff members at the world headquarters in the Chicago Evening Post Building, Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1930.

  5. The reception area at the world headquarters in the Jewelers’ Building, Chicago, Illinois, USA. 1936.

  6. The world headquarters on Ridge Avenue in Evanston, Illinois, USA, near the end of construction in 1954.

  7. The boardroom at the world headquarters on Ridge Avenue, Evanston, Illinois, USA. The room was located in the center of the building and what looked like windows were actually large scenic murals. 1955.