If awards were given out for historic preservation in Beverly/Morgan Park, among the winners would surely be Rotary International.
Two years ago, leading members of this worldwide service organization began restoring the property at 10856 S. Longwood Dr., the former home of Paul Percy Harris, founder of Rotary International.
The original address of the house was 10810 S. Longwood Dr., but it was changed to 10856 when Morgan Park annexed to the city of Chicago in 1914.
Harris and his wife, Jean Thomson Harris, lived on the Ridge from 1912 until Paul’s death in 1947.
The estate is now owned and managed by the Paul and Jean Harris Home Foundation, formed in 2005.
The house and grounds are being restored to their 1940s appearance. The house will be a museum showcasing the history of the Harris Family and Rotary International. The major addition of a multi-level meeting facility has been built on the back of the house.
The house was opened to the public for the Beverly Area Planning Association (BAPA) Home Tour in May and is expected to be part of the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago on Oct. 19-20.
Paul and Jean Harris rank high on the list of historically significant people who made their home on the Ridge.
Paul Harris founded Rotary in 1905 as a group of four men who met to share friendship and business interests. Today, Rotary International has more than 1.2 million members in over 35,000 clubs in 200-plus countries and geographic areas.
Notable past and current Rotarians include John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Sam Walton, Pope Francis, and Prince Charles. After membership opened to women in the late 1980s, Margaret Thatcher became a Rotarian.
The publisher of The Beverly Review, Susan “Toby” Olszewski, is a past president of the Rotary Club of Bradley Bourbonnais.
According to the website of Rotary International, its mission is “to provide service to others, promote integrity, and advance world understanding, goodwill and peace through our fellowship of business, professional and community leaders.”
A notable project of the international organization has been the global eradication of polio.
Thanks to vaccination efforts by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Rotary Foundation, many areas of the world have been declared polio-free, and less than 200 new cases are reported annually.
The Rotary Club of Chicago reports on its website that it provides summer internships to 500 high school students in the Chicago Public Schools to prepare them for the workplace with job-skills training. Rotary members serve as mentors, and college scholarship possibilities are available to the students who complete the internships.
Rotary’s humanitarian efforts stem from the inspirational vision of Paul Harris. Much of the conceptualizing of the organization was conducted at the house on Longwood Drive, making the home an integral part of Rotary history.
Harris was born in 1868 and spent most of his early life in Vermont with his grandparents. His autobiography, “My Road to Rotary: The Story of a Boy, a Vermont Community and Rotary,” was written two years before his death. It details the importance of those formative years in developing his philosophy of tolerance, service and goodwill.
After earning a law degree in Iowa, Harris moved to Chicago in 1896 and opened a law practice. He met Silvester Schiele, of the Schiele Coal Company, when the latter asked him for legal help to collect a debt.
Schiele, born in 1870 in Indiana, and Harris soon formed a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives.
For years, the idea of a fellowship of businessmen from diverse occupations who are dedicated to friendship and mutual assistance was on Harris’ mind.
In 1905, Harris organized the first meeting with three acquaintances, including Schiele. The group soon expanded, and the name “Rotary” was chosen because the meeting locations rotated between the members.
Schiele was elected the first president. The early meetings were informal and fun, with sing-alongs and practical jokes. Comradely meetings remain a mainstay of Rotary.
In five years, the club had nearly 200 members, each representing a different occupation, and Harris later wrote about its success.
“We grew in numbers, in fellowship, in the spirit of helpfulness to each other and to our city,” Harris wrote. “The banker and the baker, the parson and the plumber, the lawyer and the laundryman discovered the similarity of each other’s ambitions, problems, successes and failures. We learned how much we had in common. We found joy in being of service to one another.”
In addition to supporting each other in business, Harris believed that community service should be a club objective. In 1907, while Harris was president, the first service project was undertaken. Rotary members mobilized other civic organizations to work together to convince the city to build “comfort stations,” public restrooms, in downtown locations.
Rotary went on to become the world’s first recognized service organization.
Harris recruited men to form Rotary clubs in other cities. In 1910, 16 clubs from around the country met in Chicago and voted to unify as the National Association of Rotary Clubs. Harris was elected as its first president.
That year also saw the first international club established in Canada. In 1922, the organization became Rotary International.
The Rotary connection to the Ridge started with the Prairie Club, formed in 1908 to organize hikes into the countryside for inner-city residents. Harris was a founding member.
The Blue Island Ridge was a popular spot for hikers, easily accessible by train. In fact, since the 1870s, nature lovers and artists had been coming to the Ridge from the city by train to take in its scenic beauty.
During a hike on the Ridge in 1910, Harris tore his jacket sleeve on a barbed-wire fence. A fellow hiker, a young woman from Scotland named Jean Thomson, offered to mend it.
They married three months later, and Jean wrote in following years that she could not recall if she ever mended the jacket.
Harris knew the Ridge well. He loved walking down Longwood Drive, a natural wilderness at the time. The terrain reminded him of the Vermont countryside. He enjoyed watching children sledding down the hill in winter.
In his autobiography, Harris described his affection for the Ridge.
“The thought came to me that if ever I was to have a home of my own, it would be on the top of the hill on Longwood Drive. I married my bonnie Jean in 1910, and two years later acquired a home on the hill.
“We named our home ‘Comely Bank,’ after the street in Edinburgh where she spent the days of her childhood and youth, and never, during the 30-odd years of our ownership, has any boy ever been refused free use of our lawn when coasting [sledding] time comes.”
The house was designed in 1905 by architect George S. Bannister, who resided in Beverly with his wife, Alla Ripley Bannister. Alla, using the name Madame Ripley, became a famous fashion designer.
The original owner of the house was Luther S. Dickey, Jr., a successful grain merchant. Dickey and his wife, Bessie, were prominent members of Morgan Park society.
The historic residence is designated as the Dickey-Harris House.
In naming a house, historians use the name of the person for whom it was built. As time goes on, the names of other significant owners are added with hyphens.
For example, a home in Morgan Park that is popularly known as the Blackwelder House is properly designated as the Ingersoll-Blackwelder-Simmerling House.
The Dickey-Harris House is popularly known as the Rotary House or the Harris Home, the name used by Rotary.
In 1912, Dickey sold the house to Harris and built a new residence at 10900 S. Prospect Ave., which still stands.
Paul and Jean Harris made Comely Bank their own. They added half-timbering to the exterior and enclosed the front porch with a picture window so they could enjoy the view all year.
In 1909, Sylvester Schiele was married to Jessie L. MacDonald, and they purchased the house at 2028 W. 110th St., around the corner from Harris. Soon a path was worn between the back doors of the two homes.
That house still stands, but the exterior has been substantially altered.
The Harris Home was used for planning and strategy sessions for the Rotary organization. The basement was set up as a meeting room, and Harris and Rotary leaders gathered there for lengthy discussions.
Harris welcomed many guests, including foreign dignitaries, on behalf of Rotary. The couple turned the front yard into an “International Friendship Garden,” planting trees in commemoration of noteworthy visitors. On display was a garden lantern sent from Japan as a gift.
Jean Harris entertained Rotary guests and traveled with her husband to Rotary functions around the world. Jessie Schiele was active in many women’s clubs, including the Women of the Rotary Club of Chicago.
Neither couple had children. In later years, the couples were inseparable friends.
Silvester Schiele died in 1945. Harris died two years later and was buried from Morgan Park Congregational Church. Their graves lie together in the Rotary burial plot in Mt. Hope Cemetery on 115th Street. Jessie Schiele (1871-1964) is also buried there with her husband.
Jean Harris sold the house after her husband’s death and moved into the Conrad Hilton Hotel for a few years. She volunteered at the Pacific Garden Mission, which was established in 1877 by Col. George and Sarah Dunn Clark, also leading citizens of Morgan Park.
Jean eventually returned to Scotland, her 1881 birthplace. She died in 1963 and is buried there with her family.
In 1950, Jean contributed an article to The Rotarian, the official publication of the organization, on “Those Years with Paul.”
Jean wrote about their life in Morgan Park.
“Shut off from the drive by tall old oaks, surrounded by all manner of wild fruit trees, and a block from the nearest street light, the house was just what Paul loved. I think the one thing we sought most was simple contentment. And we found it in simple easy friendships, in good neighbors gathered at our hearth, in good books, in the woods and in things in tune with nature.”
Jean also described hosting visitors.
“To our joy, many friends we had met in far places and near came to us at Comely Bank. Sometimes men and women from eight or ten different lands would be with us for tea.
“One afternoon only weeks before Paul passed away, J.C. Penney called upon us. He wanted to meet Paul, feeling that the principles on which he operated his famous stores were quite like those of Rotary—and over a cup of tea, of course.”
She recounted the Discussion Club that Paul had organized in the basement and the “rich exchange of ideas that took place around that long table.”
Paul Harris, his wife wrote, loved to roam Morgan Park.
“Through all our years together, he loved to go around the neighborhood talking with people—the station master, the monument maker, the farmer who knew all about chicken raising. Every man interested him.”
Harris’ view of humanity is more relevant than ever in today’s world.
“Paul has written of the well-beaten path twixt our house and that of Silvester and Jessie Schiele. He wished that there might be such paths between all the homes on every street.”
Many remembrances from visitors of the Harris couple at Comely Bank have been published in The Rotarian. Through the years, the Harris Home became a place of pilgrimage for Rotarians from all over the world.
Robert C. Knuepfer Jr., chairman of the Paul and Jean Harris Home Foundation, oversees the restoration.
An associate pastor at the Union Church of Hinsdale, Ill., (United Church of Christ), Knuepfer also practices law and has a financial investment company. He rose through the ranks of the organization to hold the position of Rotary International director, one step from the top spot. He has been involved with the Harris Home since the foundation purchased it in 2005 from the second of two owners following Jean Harris.
Knuepfer explained the importance of the house in an interview in the August issue of The Rotarian.
“From a historical perspective, this is an iconic residence,” Knuepfer said. “From an American point of view, it’s the Mt. Vernon of Rotary—the home of our first president. Many other early Rotary members also gathered there.”
Knuepfer said architect Keith R. Larson, a fellow Rotarian from Hinsdale, developed the plans for the project.
“It has been a dream since 2005 to restore the house,” Knuepfer said. “We’ve completed a lot of the work in the last two years, and our goal is to finish this year.”
He said Tommy O’Neill, of Beverly Cabinets and Construction, the general contractor, has been a tremendous asset to the project.
“We are very grateful to him,” said Knuepfer, “for his professionalism in helping us restore the home to its original condition.”
Historical photos are being used to guide the restoration. The front entrance has been restored, and the second-floor balcony on the back of the house, which had been enclosed to create a fourth bedroom, has been reopened.
The interior has been rebuilt to its original footprint. When working on the kitchen, crews discovered two surprises.
A back staircase to the second floor had been walled in by a previous owner. Also uncovered was an opening in the wall that enabled Jean to pass a cup of tea to Paul in the living room.
The addition to the back of the house consists of a newly dug basement, topped by a two-story meeting room with a fireplace and patio. The room can seat 40 to 50 people. The original back of the house, including windows and balcony, forms the east inside wall of the room. The original back door provides entrance into the museum from the meeting room.
The new basement includes a kitchenette, a room with audio/visual equipment, and restrooms. Harris’ meeting room in the original basement will be on display. An elevator between the levels will make the facility handicapped accessible.
Knuepfer said the meeting area will be available for community use.
The next stages include restoring the outside, particularly the International Friendship Garden (also referred to as the “Peace Garden”) in the front of the house. The Japanese garden lantern is still there. A pergola such as one in pictures of Harris will be installed in the backyard.
Period furnishings are being sought for the interior, and fundraising for the project continues.
Knuepfer said the goal is $5 million, of which $2 million is for the house and its restoration and $3 million is to establish an endowment for continuing operation of the house. To date, $1.5 million has been raised.
Information on the project, donations and recognition opportunities, ranging from brick pavers to recognition inside the Harris Home, are available online at paulharrishome.org.
According to debi [sic] Ross, governor of Rotary District 6450, the Chicago area is home to the “Rotary Triangle.”
It’s comprised of Rotary International World Headquarters in Evanston, in which an office is set up to replicate the setting of the first Rotary meeting; the Harris Home on Longwood Drive; and the Rotary gravesite in Mt. Hope Cemetery.
In The Rotarian article, Knuepfer emphasized the educational value of the restoration project.
“Restoring the home of our founder will allow generations of Rotarians—including those who have not even been born yet—to learn more about Rotary and see what life was like in the early 1900s, when the Rotary story began.
“That’s a legacy that will last forever,” Knuepfer said, “and I hope others will agree and share in that vision.”
With Morgan Park and the Ridge holding two of the most important sites in the world for Rotary International, the restoration project has also been a boon to the preservation of local history, which has earned praise from officials with the Ridge Historical Society (RHS).
“It takes dedication to commit to restoration, when it’s so easy to let history slip through our fingers, mislabeled as progress,” said RHS Historian Linda Lamberty.
“We owe Rotary International a great debt of thanks for recognizing the importance of Paul and Jean Harris’ longtime Morgan Park home to Rotary’s worldwide history and our own more intimate story and for doing such a thorough and sensitive job of restoring it. They are setting a fine example—but then again, they’re Rotary.”
For more information about Rotary International or the Rotary Club of Chicago, visit rotary.org or rotaryone.club.
This article is part of The Beverly Review's annual special section "The Good News."