Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Kiosk Sphinx, a Private Museum, in Chicago, Illinois.

Washington Porter Sr.
Chicago businessman Washington Porter Sr. was the president of Porter Brothers Company, a fruit trading company that was the first to ship fruit to Chicago from California via railcars in 1869. Porter was one of 45 directors of the World's Columbian Exposition, working hard to convince Congress to hold the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893. 

Porter Sr. was born in Boone County, Illinois, in 1844 or 1846 and died in 1922. He was a civil war veteran. By the 1890s, Washington Porter Senior's fruit company was handling eight thousand carloads of fruit a year. Porter became wealthy and started buying up prime Chicago real estate. The Tribune described Porter as "one of Chicago's opulent citizens, a typical Westerner, and withal a character."

The "Kiosk Sphinx" was the name given to an unusual private museum at 4044 Oakenwald Avenue which was the back yard of his deceased parent's house at 4043 Lake Park Avenue. It was designed and built (from 1928 to 1933) at a cost of $350,000 by eccentric Chicago millionaire Washington Porter Jr. in the Oakland community of Chicago, to house Porter Jr. antique collections and to rival the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress World's Fair.

A young Washington Porter Jr., circa Oct. 1919. Porter Jr., who was the son of wealthy businessman Washington Porter Sr., was a former American Legation Secretary in Copenhagen. In 1919, when Porter Jr. was 24 years old, he married a Danish woman while overseas. The marriage was brief and in 1922 Porter's wife filed for divorce amid scandalous newspaper reports of desertion. 
Note: this photo has a small amount of white paint surrounding Porter's head.
In 1932, Washington Porter Jr. was legally ordered to give a million dollars back to his mother, which he had swindled from the widow after his wealthy father died in 1922. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Porter Jr. was building his art museum in the back of the family mansion and throwing lavish theme parties for Chicago's elite. Note: This photo has been damaged and is undated. 
The tower was easily seen from Lake Shore Drive, 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.
Looking Southwest at the Kiosk Sphinx and Porter Mansion.
The penthouse, grotto, and terrace are a few of the many extraordinary features of the architecturally unusual Kiosk Sphinx, the dream house which Washington Porter Jr. has erected after six years of work and an expenditure of $350,000. Society was finally given an opportunity to view the sunken gardens, cascades, and other oddities of design at a "gala opening" on May 23, 1934. The photo was taken in April 1934.
Note the Vault Lights (prism glass) used on the patio.
The 150 ft. tower, an Egyptian obelisk called the Kiosk Sphinx, is being completed on the Washington Porter Jr. estate on May 12, 1934, at 4043 Lake Park Ave. in Chicago. The tower was to have a 15x15 foot illuminated winged sphinx made of glass sitting at the top so it could be visible to motorists on Lake Shore Drive. Porter Jr. said, "All the old emperors had their kiosks, and I have mine." The sphinx would never make it to the top of the tower.
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 who had the house built to his specifications.
Washington Porter Jr., from left, and his cousins Genevieve Porter, and Virginia Porter, look at the many pieces of art in Porter Jr.'s eccentric "art castle", called the Kiosk Sphinx, during the museums exclusive grand opening on May 23, 1934. The Tribune reported Porter Jr. as saying, "My father and I spent years in all corners of the world collecting the exhibit."
Wanita Fong worships a statue, which was one of the sacred possessions of Chinese emperors, and is now included in Washington Porter Jr.'s art collection at Kiosk Sphinx, at 4043 Lake Park Ave. in Chicago in Aug. 1934. Porter Jr. opened the museum on Aug. 27, 1934, saying, "I am opening the museum to the public so citizens of Chicago may... make a world tour of art in a grand scale."
Washington Porter Jr. was an obsessive collector of art and antiques. Porter Jr. built at the rear of his parent's old mansion the unusual structure consisted of a combined residence and private museum for Porter's collections. Also built was a 15 story metal-framed observation tower, built to observe the 1933 World's Fair, which was never given its complete stone cladding and a fifteen-foot illuminated glass sphinx at the very top. Porter referred to this glass figure as the "Kiosk Sphinx" (i.e. the Kiosk's Sphinx) and gave this name to the entire complex. It also derived from Porter's interest in Egyptian antiquities which were among the treasures displayed in his private galleries. 
Washington Porter Jr. sits in the Cook County courtroom of Judge George Rooney on Dec. 18, 1935, as witnesses testify. Porter Jr. appeared in court to fight his sister, Mrs. Frances Porter White, who was claiming Porter Jr. needed to surrender furnishings and other property in the old Porter mansion as part of her inheritance. Their mother, Frances Lee Porter, had died in May 1935. Her will provided that two-thirds of the estate go to her daughter, and one-third go to her son. Washington Porter Jr. lived in the mansion with his "bizarre Kiosk Sphinx" museum, which housed his art collection and was valued at $500,000, according to the Tribune.
Among his objects was a considerable amount of table silver marked with an "N" which he has claimed belonged to the first Napoleon. The variety of the collection is indicated by the fact that he claimed that his goldfish had a value of four or five thousand dollars.

Porter Jr. never had the opportunity to spend much time at his dream building. His financial resources were stretched by the project, and he was constantly being sued for unpaid debts and other legal difficulties.
In March 1935, Washington Porter Jr. was in court when his mother's maid sued him for false arrest. For 31 years Marie Sauer was the maid for Frances Lee Porter (Washington's mother) at their mansion on Lake Park Ave. Sauer was awarded $500 in damages against her employer's son after Porter Jr. had Sauer arrested on Jan. 24, 1932, accusing the maid of stealing a $10,000 Russian silver tea set. The set was later found in the home and Porter Jr. was accused of planting the evidence. According to Tribune, "The Porters, mother, and son, live under the same roof, but are not on good terms and maintain separate establishments, Mrs. Sauer said."
In June 1939, Washington Porter Jr. was fined $10.00 by Judge Gutnecht for driving a car without a driver's license. Porter Jr. was arrested when he was driving down Columbus Drive without a license, inspection sticker, and with only one headlight burning on May 31, 1939. Porter Jr.'s bail was set at $40, but he only had $17. His butler had to come and bail him out of the Central police station.
An old friend of the family, named Mrs. Frank G. Logan, feared the art collection would be lost and bought the Kiosk Sphinx. Porter Jr. claimed she had only 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. He barricaded himself inside with a chef.
Washington Porter Jr., 47, right, and his friend Robert McDonald, 21, look over Porter Jr.'s art collection in March 1941 after the pair re-seized Porter's family estate and "art castle." Porter Jr. had lost the house and art collection when the state came after him for not paying $15,020 of taxes. An art collector bought the estate and collection at a sheriff's sale, but Porter Jr. fought the woman by breaking into his previous home and squatting in it with Mr. McDonald.
Washington Porter Jr., 47, admires pieces of art in his "art castle" at 4043 Lake Park Ave. in Chicago in March 1941. Porter Jr. had broken into his own home and re-seized his art collection and estate. According to the Tribune, "Porter posted a note on the plate glass door of the mansion which reads: 'A man's house is his castle. So, enough said. No admittance to anyone unless by my order.'"
In September of 1942, after a small fire, the building seems to have been condemned and the collections bought at a Sheriff's Sale for $17,500, according to the newspapers, by Mrs. Logan who has headed a society for what she terms "Sanity in Art" and has conducted a campaign against modernism in various Chicago galleries. 

An exasperated judge ordered Porter Jr. to get a job and see a psychiatrist. Instead, Porter Jr. fled to California and the house became “a spectacular ruin,” after neighborhood people looted it over several weeks in September of 1942.
Officer John O'Connell of the Hyde Park station looks at the debris left at the Washington Porter Jr. home after neighborhood people looted it over several weeks in September 1942. According to the Tribune, "Hyde Park police ran into a bedlam yesterday as they drew up to the old Washington Porter mansion at 4043 Lake Park Avenue in response to a call that 'an army of 200 kids are ransacking the place piece by piece.' One boy, about 7, was seen lugging away a miniature head of Medusa, done in marble, snaky locks and all." 
The “Sphinx Kiosk” was left to rot until it was finally demolished in 1957 to make way for the 2nd phase of the Chicago Housing Authority's Lakefront Properties which included two-story row houses, the Olander Homes and Washington Park Homes.
The Washington Porter Jr. mansion, with a view of the Kiosk Sphinx museum built on the back of the residence, at 4043 Lake Park Ave. on Nov. 20, 1948. The architecturally bizarre building that Porter Jr. once described as "Egyptian with a touch of Italian Renaissance", was torn down in 1957 to make way for a Chicago Housing Authority project. 
A view from the tower in the rear of the fabled home of Washington Porter Jr., at 4043 Lake Park Ave., is being demolished on Sept. 17, 1957, to make way for a Chicago Housing Authority project. Porter Jr. had the architecturally unusual mansion built onto the back end of his parent's home and called it the Kiosk Sphinx. His dream house, which held his vast art collection, took six years to build at an expenditure of $350,000.
Amended: During 1962 and 1963, two projects were completed on the near South Side. The first was the Washington Park Homes. It is made up of 67 buildings on 27 scattered sites in the area bounded by 39th and 63rd Streets, and from Lake Michigan west to Stewart Avenue. Seven of the buildings were 16-story high rises of the same design as Robert Taylor Homes. These buildings contained a total of 1,065 units.

On the site of the “Sphinx Kiosk” at 4040 S. Oakenwald Ave., CHA constructed a high-rise that was the first in the complex which became known as the Lakefront Properties. The remaining 378 units of the Washington Park Homes were located in 60 groups of two-story row houses. 

Porter Jr. died in the 1980s and his ashes were scattered in Lake Michigan.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. Another fascinating story with fabulous photos! How sad he saw all lost and his project demolished. Curious how he spent his last years.

  2. Fascinating story. Hard to believe Housing projects replaced it. What a lost treasure.

  3. The photos are really interesting. I never knew about this. You need to write a few books about all these interesting facts. 😀

  4. Its a shame looters were in the museum. How many art works were taken. Its a twisted tale. Thanks Neil!

  5. Amazing story. So much to learn from the past, yet we seldom do.

  6. unbelievable architecture on this home and the art collection is indescribable. this man obviously had a lot of time to devote to this

  7. Sheila Siarkiewicz says...fascinating article and pictures.

  8. Just because you have money doesn't mean you are a little bit daft. It would have been good if he were compelled to seek help. A shame that this place was torn down.

  9. Fascinating article. I really enjoyed this.

  10. Washington Porter Sr was my grandmother’s uncle. Love the back story on his son’s wildly ambitious use of the family nest egg. Certainly amused and entertained Chicagoans with the lavish architecture and art collection. Glory days … turned to dust.

  11. First time I ever knew of this. So amazing. Hope there’s a biography out there. I wonder what happened to that Medusa.


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