Why did beautiful bronze reliefs at a Hyde Park church create an artistic controversy? Geoffrey Baer answers this question and more in this week’s edition of Ask Geoffrey.
Have you ever heard of something called the “kiosk sphinx?”
--Dan Protess, Bucktown
It’s safe to say the Kiosk Sphinx was one of the most bizarre buildings ever built in Chicago. Chicago historian Tim Samuelson called it a “private museum and party palace” on the city’s south side on Oakenwald near 40th Street.
The most prominent feature was a 15-story steel observation tower with a stone base that was easily seen from Lake Shore Drive. The tower was supposed to have been entirely covered in stone with a huge illuminated glass sphinx at the top, which gives us the “sphinx” half of the name. The “kiosk” refers to the Ottoman Empire term for a free-standing garden pavilion – and the sphinx was to be on top of a towering kiosk, thus the name. But it was never finished.
The house was described in the Chicago Tribune as a “Rococo combination of spires, domes and ornate staircases.” There were grottos, glass-floored terraces, secret passages and theme rooms filled with the art treasures and antiques of the owner, an eccentric Chicago millionaire named Washington Porter Jr. who had the house built to his specifications.
Porter Jr. had inherited his fortune from his father, Washington Porter Sr., who devised the first successful technology for shipping fruit long distances by train without spoilage. In the photo to the right, Washington Porter Sr. is in the top hat, and Washington Jr. as a young boy carrying the riding crop on the left. After Porter Jr. spent much of his inherited wealth on the Kiosk Sphinx, he stopped paying his bills and eventually lost the property in the 1940s.
An old friend of the family named Mrs. Logan feared the art collection would be lost and bought the Kiosk Sphinx. Porter Jr. claimed she had agreed to take care of it until he got back on his feet, but she kicked him out and put the property up for sale. About a year later, Porter Jr. gathered up some friends and raided the house, kicking out Mrs. Logan’s people. According to Samuelson, he barricaded himself inside with a chef. An exasperated judge ordered Porter Jr. to get a job and see a psychiatrist. Instead, Porter Jr. fled to California and the house became, in Samuelson’s words, “a spectacular ruin.” It was left to rot until it was finally demolished in 1957. Porter Jr. died in the 1980s and his ashes were scattered in Lake Michigan.
I read an article about the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank located at Jackson and LaSalle, but the bank there today seems to be a different building.
--Barbara and Bob Chirinko, Lincoln Park
The Illinois Trust and Savings Bank at LaSalle and Jackson was torn down in 1924 and replaced by Continental Bank, now Bank of America.
The old Illinois Trust and Savings Bank was founded in 1873, two years after the Chicago Fire. By the time it moved into this new building in 1897 at LaSalle and Jackson, it was in the top 10 banks in the country in assets. The building, designed by D.H. Burnham and Company, looked like a classical temple with huge Corinthian columns. This was four years after Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, which Burnham had conceived in a grand neo-classical style. After the Fair, neo-classicism became wildly popular all over the country. The spectacular interior of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank had a huge rotunda with a glass skylight. Teller cages were around the perimeter of the rotunda. Bank employees worked at desks in the center below the skylight.
But the building was most famous not for banking or architecture, but for being the site of one of America’s first commercial aviation disasters, which occurred on July 21, 1919. The bank was closed, but about 150 clerks, mostly female, were still at their desks in the rotunda. Suddenly, a huge shadow passed across the floor. Seconds later, a flaming Goodyear Blimp came crashing through the skylight. The hydrogen-filled airship was on its maiden day of service. It had taken off from Grant Park and was on its way to the White City Amusement Park on the south side when it caught fire over the Loop. After it crashed to the floor of the rotunda, the gasoline tanks burst into flames, killing nine bank employees and injuring 28 others.
The pilot of the blimp survived. He parachuted to safety along with another crew member. Three others aboard the blimp perished. After the crash, City Council prohibited flammable gas airships from flying over populated areas of the city. The bank was repaired and reopened, but it was torn down five years later.
I toured a Cape Cod church that had a sculpture of St. Francis. The docent told me the same artist has work at a Chicago church. What church is this?
--Julie Greene, Highland Park
The church is St. Thomas the Apostle in Hyde Park. Viewers may remember a Chicago Tonight story about the radical modern design of that church from 1924 by architect Barry Byrne. Turns out, the church’s design wasn’t the only radical element at St. Thomas the Apostle.
The church’s Stations of the Cross are by Italian-born Chicago artist Alfeo Faggi. The Stations of the Cross are a series of scenes depicting events along Jesus’s final walk, bearing the cross to his crucifixion. They’re found on the walls of most Catholic churches and some Protestant denominations as well.
Faggi’s very modern bronze relief sculptures fit with the overall design of St. Thomas the Apostle, which is considered the first truly modern Catholic Church. They were funded by the wealthy heiress and radical lefty Frances Crane Lillie.
But the non-realistic representations of Jesus and other biblical characters and scenes created an awkward problem for the monsignor of the church; he wanted to keep Mrs. Lillie happy, but some conservative parishioners and church leaders strongly objected to them. The monsignor ultimately won the cardinal’s blessing with a letter-writing campaign arguing that the Stations of the Cross were important works of art.
Faggi’s life-size pieta (a figure of Mary holding the lifeless Jesus) from 1916 is also at St. Thomas the Apostle.
Faggi was the son of a fresco painter. He came to the U.S. from Florence at age 28 in 1913 and died in 1966. Faggi was inspired by Michelangelo’s notion that an artist should represent things not as they are but as they should be. In an oral history, Faggi said of those who disapproved or didn’t understand his work, “Those people are dumb, no brain at all - no visual brain - nothing there. Anyhow, it didn't make any difference to me and I never asked any sympathy from anybody.”