For years a large portion of Houston’s public drinking water was stored in an underground cistern right off the banks of Buffalo Bayou. Built in 1926, the cistern was used for decades until it sprang a leak that couldn’t be found or repaired. The public reservoir was drained and sat unused and practically forgotten about. Years passed, Houstonians enjoyed the Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark and Water Works pavilion above ground while the empty cavernous space the size of one and a half football fields lurked beneath.
City officials debated on whether the space should be demolished or turned into a parking garage or restaurant. But once you set foot in the cistern you understand why all those plans were dropped. A dense wave of eerie silence envelops you as you take in what seems like endless rows of 25-foot tall concrete columns mirrored by standing water. The hypnotic beauty of the chamber is reminiscent of Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern but with thin rays of light from open hatches above that illuminate the wide expanse.
The sound, or lack thereof, is also something to behold. A voice or clap carries for an astounding 17 seconds as it reverberates against the thick concrete walls. The cistern will eventually be used as a one-of-a-kind performing and visual arts venue. Artists and performers alike will make use of the unique light and sound qualities of the space to put on unforgettable spectacles. Buffalo Bayou Partnership received a $1.2 million grant from The Brown Foundation to make the cistern assessable to the public and up to code.
The Buffalo Bayou Cistern opens to the public May 13 and is equipped with a walkable path that lets visitors navigate around the maze of columns. Admission is $2 but includes an optional reservation-only 30 minute historical tour by a Buffalo Bayou Park guide (no children under the age of 9 permitted). The space is open Thursdays and Fridays, 3:00 – 7:00 pm and Saturdays and Sundays, 10:00 am – 5:00 pm.
Check out our 360 degree virtual tour of the cistern here.