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For nearly 40 years, Paul and Jean Harris hosted Rotary meetings and entertained visiting Rotarians at their home on Chicago's South Side. Today, Comely Bank, which they affectionately named after the street in Edinburgh, Scotland, where Jean grew up, is badly in need of repairs.
The Paul and Jean Harris Home Foundation hopes to raise $3 million to carry out renovations, repay its debt from the house purchase, and add enhancements that would make the site a worthy tribute to Harris.
"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," said Robert C. Knuepfer Jr., 2010-11 governor of District 6450 and president of the Harris Home Foundation.
After Paul Harris died in 1947, Jean sold Comely Bank. It remained in private hands until the Paul and Jean Harris Home Foundation bought it in 2005 with money borrowed from the charitable foundation of the Rotary Club of Naperville. The Harris Home Foundation replaced the basement floor and made a few immediate structural repairs so Rotarians could safely visit the house during Rotary's centennial year.
But since then, the restoration project has come to a standstill.
The foundation hopes to restore the home to the way it looked when the Harrises lived there. It also wants to install digital monitors in each room that would display archived films, speeches, and photos of Harris.
During a celebration of the end of the Rotary year in late June, Knuepfer took a group of outgoing district governors and their spouses on a tour of Comely Bank. The 50-plus visitors checked out the basement where Harris held meetings around a table made of plywood and sawhorses, viewed the fireplace where he held his fireside chats, walked through the friendship garden where he planted trees in honor of his visitors, and stood in front of the bedroom window that he was looking out when he died.
"It's got a serenity in it," said Sunil K. Sharma, 2010-11 governor of District 5890 (Texas). "You feel like you want to sit and think."
"To me, it was like walking in Rotary history," added his wife, Rashmi. After the tour, the Rotarians agreed to help with the restoration efforts on behalf of their class of district governors.
Eventually, the Harris Home Foundation would like to establish an endowment fund to pay for the home's maintenance. The foundation's board envisions creating a Rotary history trail, with stops at Comely Bank, Harris's nearby gravesite, and Room 711 at RI headquarters - a re-creation of the office where the first Rotary meeting was held.
Knuepfer says Comely Bank could also be used as a meeting place for the RI Board and local or visiting clubs, and for Rotary Foundation functions.