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Palmer House Hilton Grows Mushrooms in Old Tunnel Deep Under Loop

By Janet Rausa Fuller | June 18, 2014 8:10am
 The Palmer House Hilton has converted an old freight tunnel 65 feet below street level into a mushroom farm.
Underground mushrooms at the Palmer House Hilton
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THE LOOP — There are oyster mushrooms growing 65 feet below Wabash Avenue.

This is no wild fungi free-for-fall, but a carefully cultivated urban farming experiment in an old freight tunnel underneath the Palmer House Hilton, 17 E. Monroe St.

"Everyone is doing the gardening, the bees. We've done that. We wanted to do something new," said Stephen Henry, the hotel's executive chef.

Janet Fuller tells DNAinfo Radio that the project started as a dream:

A few years ago, the hotel converted its 25th-floor rooftop into a garden with beehives. Those are thriving.

The tunnel, dug in 1906, has sat empty and unused since 1955. If its walls could talk, they might tell of how rail cars in the 1900s used to move debris and coal, and later mail and merchandise, through the intricate subterranean network woven throughout the Loop, connecting grand landmarks such as the Palmer House, City Hall and the Auditorium Theater.

"During Prohibition, it was used to move hooch," said Ken Price, public relations director and resident historian at the Palmer House.

The tunnel system eventually was rendered obsolete, and branches were closed off or sealed up over the years, including beneath the Palmer House. (Conrad Hilton, who bought the hotel in 1945, ordered it sealed in concrete. That ended up saving the hotel from considerable damage in the 1992 flood that shut down the Loop, according to Price.)

So there sat a 100-foot section of vacant tunnel in what's now the boiler room — until a hotel employee had an oddly specific dream about growing mushrooms in the basement and told Henry about it, and he told his food and beverage team, and the chatter multiplied, sporelike, until Henry's boss gave the go-ahead for the mushroom project this spring.

Installation began about three weeks ago led by Sara Gasbarra, owner of Verdura, who designed and tends to the rooftop garden. She chose easy-growing pink and polar white oyster mushrooms to start.

The tunnel, about 6 feet wide and 7 feet tall, is an ideal environment for mushrooms — dark, moist and warm.

It's actually a little warmer than the mushrooms and Gasbarra would like — a thermometer read 90 degrees on Tuesday — so progress might be slow at first, but the temperature will likely even out in the other seasons. The tunnel system in its heyday was said to maintain an internal temperature of 55 degrees year-round, Price said.

In the wild, fungi grow in soil and on and around trees. In this dark sub-basement, they're getting started on straw beds covered in black plastic.

The straw has been treated in a lyme solution — "to take away any competitors, so to speak, no other bacteria or fungi," Gasbarra said — and sprinkled with mycelia, spores attached to grains.

Later this week, Gasbarra will switch on the irrigation system and set up a hanging chandelier system to grow more mushrooms.

In another three weeks, mushrooms should be popping up, though Gasbarra said it's hard to predict now what the full yield will be.

"This is all new to me, so I'm learning along with them," Henry said.

Henry wants to add shiitake and porcini mushrooms to the growing schedule, and he's eager to cook with the underground mushrooms, maybe do an all-mushroom wine dinner.

For now, it's a matter of waiting. The fungi is all covered up, out of sight but not forgotten.

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