It was a glorious afternoon in Chicago. Like many a tourist before me, I couldn’t fight the pull of the Navy Pier.

After the obligatory Ferris wheel ride, though, I sacrificed a few hours of sunshine to explore the cool, dark Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows.

Even though it spans 800 feet along the lower level of the pier’s Festival Hall, the museum manages to feel like an undiscovered treasure that few passers-by savor. On the day of my visit, I had to contend with people rushing to and from a health and fitness expo. And the calm of the galleries is frequently punctuated by the slamming of the heavy doors that lead to the parking garage.

Still, none of these distractions significantly detracts from the 150-piece collection, which lays claim to being the first museum in the country dedicated to stained-glass windows.

The Navy Pier might not be the first place you’d expect to find something with such a serious-sounding mission. Having the museum in Chicago, however, makes perfect sense when you learn about the stained glass displayed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition, including the spectacular Tiffany Chapel designed by the master Louis Comfort Tiffany.

According to the museum brochure, the exhibit offers a video and a group of Victorian examples from the Chicago area. I stumbled into the collection, however, at what seemed like the perfect spot: a grouping of windows designed by Tiffany and fellow multitalented artist John La Farge.

The windows undoubtedly were impressive in their original locations, which included churches, artists’ studios and private homes. Seeing them up close lets you examine what you wouldn’t be able to observe at a distance. You can admire them as you would a painting. There are delicately detailed faces and glass that ripples in the robes of biblical figures.

Landscape backgrounds luminesce in the same way the sky does at sunset. And in an especially striking display in a separate Tiffany gallery, the lights behind one piece toggle on and off to transform the window from a dull milky white with an almost indistinct tableau to a warm, glowing scene featuring an angel.

It’s easy to get lost in quiet contemplation of the beautiful works dedicated to the deceased or a religion. But those more typical windows are just a fraction at the museum. Many of the examples salvaged from houses are simply adorned with flowers or, in the case of Frank Lloyd Wright, geometric shapes. Among more contemporary windows are depictions of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Michael Jordan.