On any sunny day, the east end of Buffalo Bayou Park is lively and energetic with music, events, cyclists, skaters and all manner of park patrons.
But a few feet below the Brown Foundation Lawn is a space where sunlight is scarce and visitors speak in hushed voices. Inside the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern at the Water Works, light and sound offer echoes and reflections of the past.
Described as a modern archeological find, the 90-year-old, decommissioned underground City of Houston drinking water reservoir has become one of the most unique attractions in Houston. In fact, there are few sights like it worldwide. The reservoir earned the cistern moniker because of its resemblance to ancient Roman cisterns, particularly the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul.
Built in 1926, the Buffalo Bayou Cistern stored 15 million gallons of municipal drinking water for nearly 80 years until an irreparable leak prompted its closure in 2007. Now, only six inches of water remain in the structure that features 221 concrete columns and stretches 87,500 square feet, the size of 1 ½ football fields.
Open to public tours since May, Houstonians and visitors are lining up and raving about the utilitarian structure that reveals an unexpected beauty in an unexpected place. Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, said the cistern been praised by art and architecture experts as a must-see industrial space with infinite possibilities.
Recognizing that potential, Buffalo Bayou Partnership took over control of the space from the City of Houston, and made public safety and code modifications through donations from the Brown Foundation. In December, the Partnership will host temporary light and sound art installations in the cistern.
“Originally, we were looking to provide additional parking without taking up more green space in the park,” Olson said. “We knew there was huge underground space, but when our consultants went down into the cistern, they were overwhelmed by what they saw. There was no way we were going to use it for a parking garage.
“People suggested different ideas of what we could do, maybe even have a night club in there. We just loved the rawness of the space, so we didn’t want to intervene too much and destroy what was there,” Olson said. “Nearly all of our tours sell out in advance, and we know once we get an art installation in there, it will be even more popular.”
Steve Parker, a Buffalo Bayou Partnership docent, gives historical tours of the cistern. In addition to its historical significance, Parker said light and sound are the cistern’s greatest assets.
“Before the tour begins, I hear some skeptical comments. It’s a water storage tank, how interesting could that be?” Parker said. “But once we open the door, people gasp. As your eyes adjust to the dim light, some of the comments we hear when we open the door are that it’s awe-inspiring. The view changes as you walk around the perimeter. The visual illusion created from the reflection of light on the water takes a few moments for people to realize that the cistern is not two stories.
“When we say we plan to open the space for art exhibits, we don’t mean putting paintings on the walls,” Parker said. “I’ve seen some artists come and test out light installations, and that reflection is incredible. You won’t want to miss it.”
Renowned sculptor Donald Lipski was so moved by his first visit to the cistern that he created, “Down Periscope,” a permanent art installation that offers a view inside the structure from the park lawn above.
“When I visited the park, I had an entirely different idea in mind for a sculpture,” Lipski said. “But then I learned about the cistern. I was able to descend into this mysterious, subterranean treasure. Its grandeur, utilitarian structure, symmetry and majesty astounded me.”
The cistern’s size and concrete columns also create some unique acoustic qualities, Parker said, including a 17-second echo.
“During the tours, people are usually so quiet, until we ask them to test the echo by screaming out in the dark void,” Parker said. “We have also had some musicians come in and ask to do concerts. This obviously wouldn’t work with a marching band or heavy metal band, but single voices and instruments work very well. We had one gentleman play cello and sing, and his performance was modulated to match the echo in the room.”
Daniel Yuan, an environmental investigator in Public Works & Engineering Drinking Water Operations, is no stranger to water storage facilities. Yuan said he visited the cistern out of professional curiosity, but he was pleasantly surprised.
“I honestly didn’t expect much out of the cistern as it was initially presented to me as a plain, if not boring underground storage tank,” Yuan said. “Once I had a chance to visit the cistern and learn its history, the space takes on an austere beauty. I think Buffalo Bayou has done a fantastic job of finding a way to present the historic and aesthetic value of a once unseen, but incredibly functional part of Houston’s history. ”
Tim and Graciella Kavulla attended Parker’s tour on September 15, and said they would recommend the cistern tour to friends and they would return with out-of-town visitors.
Graciella Kavulla said photos of the cistern don’t compare to the complete experience.
“Pictures do not do this place justice,” she said. “It’s really a first-hand experience. It's one of those things, you don’t really get it until you go inside and see it, hear it and feel it for yourself.”
Visitors come for the view, but Parker said they stay to hear the history. The tour provides a detailed overview of the challenges, innovations, and solutions that allowed the City of Houston to keep pace and anticipate the water needs of the growing city.
“If you lived in Houston before 2007, you might have drank some water that came through this cistern, but in late 2004-2005, the city recognized some fractures that they were going to require repairs,” Parker said. “The cost would be prohibitive, and the storage capacity is a drop in the bucket compared to our water needs and the storage provided by our lakes. This place holds 15 million gallons and just one of three lakes holds 52 billion.”
In 1926, the cistern was ahead of its time, and served its purpose for an impressive eight decades. The cistern marked its place in Houston’s history as an innovation that provided clean drinking water for generations Houstonians, and now the cistern is finding new purpose and getting the accolades it so richly deserves.