Chicago’s underground city that’s becoming a design star

The only sounds came from strip lights fizzing in the ceiling and the slow, eerie echo of footsteps in the distance.

Aromas of coffee, grease and chlorine mingled in my nostrils as I pushed through heavy double doors, rounding a corner to a dizzyingly long magnolia-coloured corridor.

To my right was the ground-floor entrance to Macy’s department store, its food hall, with few customers inside, visible through the glass. Opposite was a different kind of window display – a row of 22 rectangles of American Victorian stained glass, backlit and glowing dramatically from the inky black wall.

I was exploring Chicago’s weirdest neighbourhood, the Pedway – an unlikely candidate for regeneration, and an even less likely design muse.

Mazing for five miles under 40 blocks of The Loop (Chicago’s business district), this network of tunnels connects some of the city’s most famous buildings, including Macy’s, City Hall and the Chicago Cultural Center.

Construction began in 1951 to provide safe, weatherproof passage between the buildings, and the hotchpotch of corridors has been built piecemeal ever since. Each section is independently owned and maintained by the corresponding building above, so each section has different lights, even different air temperatures.

“Most people don’t get it,” said Margaret Hicks, who runs tours of the Pedway with her company Chicago Elevated. “But I just love it.”

The stained glass display was installed in December 2013, a joint project between Macy’s and Chicago’s Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows before the latter closed the following October. It was unusual at the time, and it still feels incongruous in this empty subterranean stretch.

Those who use the Pedway do so to escape sweltering summers and bitter winters, striding through on their daily commutes and lunch breaks. The busiest part is through Millennium Station, a Metra train hub with a wavy, fluorescent ceiling and floor lined like a race track. Scenes from the Batman film, The Dark Knight, were filmed here.

But, Hicks reckons, most people who pass through the station don’t realise they are in the Pedway, or even know what the Pedway is. And it isn’t considered a place to linger, to stop and smell the daisies – or even to admire the daisies intricately fashioned from tiny triangles of glass.

The stained-glass panels include a gourd overspilling with blooms, a blackbird soaring against a patchwork sky of greys and blues, and an owl in the heart of a bold floral display. Many are by unknown artists but one – Spider Web – was created by renowned stained-glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose father founded jewellery giant Tiffany & Co. This window has tangles of blushing petals overlapping a watery, ethereal blue.

“It’s weird, right?” said Hicks, as we gazed at the display. “I mean, there’s nothing else down here.”

But that’s changing, as others are learning what Hicks has known for years – that the Pedway’s oddness is oddly alluring.

Read more at the BBC.