An Underground City: The Story of Chicago’s Pedway
8 March 2018
As the birthplace of the skyscraper and home to the “El” — the city’s elevated train tracks — Chicago is most often championed for its height. But equally interesting and perhaps more alluring is what lies beneath, in the Pedway. Buried under the city’s perfect grid-like streets exists a series of disjointed tunnels, concourses and bridges that together cover almost five miles. Connecting every building of civic importance to cultural landmarks and public transportation hubs, the Chicago Pedway is a maze of wonder and convenience.
Uncovering Chicago’s Best Kept Secret: The Underground Pedway
Developed over a number of years for diverse reasons, without any unifying entity, each segment of the Pedway has its own flavor and style. In general, Pedway segments reflect the architectural style of the building above, creating a potpourri of design characteristics indicative of Chicago’s always-evolving architectural history. Today, people flock to the Pedway for shelter from winter’s snow and cold, as a respite from the heat as they commute from railway stations to work, or to avoid vehicular traffic as they traverse the distances between government buildings.
In an effort to make the Pedway more accessible, the City of Chicago has placed signature blue and yellow compasses at each “official” Pedway entrance. Once underground however, there is hardly any wayfinding for pedestrians to find an exit, so we’ve created a helpful map for you.
The Pedway: Connecting Chicago’s Civic Center with Cultural Landmarks
The “Civic Center” portion of the Pedway connects the Illinois Center (also designed by Helmut Jahn), City Hall, the Cook County Building and the Federal Courthouse. The main connection in the Pedway is between the Civic Center and the Chicago Cultural Center. As you make your way under the government buildings, past the Blue Line, through Block 37 and the Red Line, you will find yourself at a basement entrance to Macy’s.
As part of a collaboration with the now-defunct Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows, 22 stained glass panels were installed in the Pedway across from Macy’s [i]. Recognizing the importance of secular American Victorian stained glass windows, the installation serves as a visual link between Louis Comfort Tiffany’s favrile glass mosaic covering the ceiling of Macy’s and the Tiffany glass skylight in Preston Bradley Hall at the nearby Cultural Center.
The Pedway continues, leaving behind the stained glass installation, past an underground swimming pool, quaint cobbler, convenience store and finally arriving at an elevator to the Cultural Center. Beyond the Cultural Center is a maze of underground tunnels that lead to Millennium Station — a transit hub for South Shore commuters — and to the underground garages beneath Millennium Park, the Art Institute and Grant Park.
Updates to the Chicago Pedway System
In 2017, the The Environmental Law and Policy Center announced their plan to install more art exhibits and a public library as part of a plan to revitalize the Pedway. The Center “is funding a $125,000 redesign of the main pedway stretch beneath Randolph Street. City officials, who acknowledge that the pedway needs a reboot, are cooperating with the effort, which could introduce concerts and art shows to the underground” [ii].
This new energy around the Pedway came to light for the first time during the recent Chicago Architecture Biennial. The site-specific installation Front Door by artist Fiona Connor and architect Erin Besler put the Bedford stone street-level entrance of the Cultural Center in conversation with the fluorescently-lit Pedway beneath [iii]. As enthusiasm for this underground network grows, perhaps the Michigan Avenue portion of the Pedway will one day extend a few blocks south, looping 1000M into the underground labyrinth.