What's Up With Burlington's 'Skyway' Tunnels? | WTF | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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What's Up With Burlington's 'Skyway' Tunnels?


Published July 21, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

College Street skyway - JORDAN ADAMS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Jordan Adams ©️ Seven Days
  • College Street skyway

Burlington sits atop a vast network of tunnels. From a fabled bootlegging network to long-buried rail shafts to forgotten sewer systems, the labyrinth crisscrossing the Queen City's underground has garnered plenty of media attention over the years. But a few tunnels above the ground get less notice.

Though they don't have a storied history or even documented explanations for their existence, a few elevated walkways in the downtown corridor recently caught this reporter's eye. When the topic was bandied around the office, other staffers were ignorant of the three "skyways," as such architectural features are sometimes called.

The skyways in question are all located near Church and College streets. One bridges a narrow, unnamed alley between 116 Church Street/186 College (the stately building on the northeast corner of Church and College) and 190-194 College, its eastern neighbor emblazoned with "Pomerleau Bldg."

Another skyway stretches over Thorsen Way, the alley beside Red Square, connecting the complex of buildings at 185-195 College with 127 South Winooski Avenue. Finally, a triple-decker passageway over Stacy Lane, an even shorter alley that juts behind Ake's Place, seems to connect different parts of the 185-195 group.

Stacy Lane skyway - JORDAN ADAMS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Jordan Adams ©️ Seven Days
  • Stacy Lane skyway

Devin Colman, Vermont's state architectural historian, knows a thing or two about skyways. He grew up in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, which has a massive skyway system built to shelter pedestrians from the harsh winters as they traverse the city's downtown. In Burlington, "[the tunnels] strike me as probably more built for convenience," Colman said by phone.

Compared with Minnesota's skyway tunnels, which span a whopping 80 blocks, Burlington's are insignificant, but they're no less curious. Once we contacted the property owners, one thing became disappointingly clear: None of the skyways is currently operational or particularly accessible. What's even stranger is that some of the proprietors weren't aware of their existence until we pointed them out.

Property company Grandview Farms owns 116 Church. The company's portfolio manager, Claudia Shapiro, said she'd never even noticed the short walkway that connects her building to 190-194 College.

"I walk that alleyway every day," Shapiro said by phone. "I've never looked up."

Shapiro confirmed that the skyway is closed off on her building's end, but she doesn't know whether that's true of the other end of the tunnel.

"Jimmy Hoffa might be buried there!" she quipped.

Ernie Pomerleau, president of Pomerleau Real Estate, assured us that his building's side of the tunnel is closed, too.

"Fifty years ago, when I first saw it up there, it was virtually closed," Pomerleau said by phone.

That would have been only a couple of decades after the skyway's addition, according to Sanborn Map's fire insurance maps, which once provided detailed visualizations of buildings in urban areas. Colman wrote in an email that this particular skyway doesn't appear on the 1942 map but does on the 1950 map, placing its construction between those dates.

As for the later passage over Thorsen Way, Colman said its glass-and-steel design indicates it was probably built in the late 1950s or 1960s. There's no way to tell from the Sanborn maps, because there aren't any for Burlington after 1950. (The company eventually stopped producing maps as their use declined in the mid-20th century.)

That tunnel's purpose is known, though. When the Burlington Free Press offices were housed at 191 College, workers used the tunnel to access the paper's printing facility at 127 South Winooski. The Gannett newspaper's staff moved to Bank Street in 2013. But its printing facility remained at the South Winooski address until the end of 2020, when the Handy family bought the building. The Handys also own 185-195 College.

Colman believes the triple-decker skyway over Stacy Lane was also related to the Free Press. On the 1894 Sanborn map, it is labeled as a "slated pass" that connects an older newspaper printing facility at 187-189 College to a building at its rear, which is labeled "printing and electrical supplies" and "book bindery."

Thorsen Way skyway - JORDAN ADAMS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Jordan Adams ©️ Seven Days
  • Thorsen Way skyway

Mac Stevens, a property manager for the Handys, initially said he was certain the slated pass was sealed up on both ends. But I've seen a ceiling light glowing in the middle level of the slated pass, and other furnishings are visible from street level. Stevens said it's possible the slated pass has been annexed into the greater 185-95 complex, which combines commercial and residential uses, but he couldn't confirm.

He also said the Thorsen Way tunnel is only accessible from the printing facility side.

"But it was never in a travelable condition," Stevens said by phone. "I was curious, too. [But] it doesn't look particularly stable. I don't think you'd want to be in there for an extended period of time."

He said the fate of the Thorsen Way tunnel will depend on the Handys' plans for the newly acquired former printing facility.

"I imagine that, once we've determined what we're going to do with that property, then we'll have an idea of what's going to happen to that covered bridge," he said.

Stevens offered this reporter a chance to take a peek at the Thorsen Way tunnel. Be it structurally sound or not, I think I might have to take him up on it.

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