Whispers echo in the industrial chamber while illusions of space play with water and fire light. But first, you must enter the once abandoned underground water reservoir through a doorway leading into the earth. Only moments before, the sunshine and blue sky were reflected in the towering spires of downtown Houston. Hidden along Buffalo Bayou, the cathedral-like cistern is an architectural wonder not to be missed.
Upon the founding of the city of Houston in 1836 by the Allen brothers, bayou water was the primary source of water for residents. In 1886 fresh groundwater was discovered 180 feet under the city. For the next thirty years, it provided drinking and household water until a series of fires strained the system. In August 1926, the City of Houston engineered an underground water reservoir. The 87,500 square feet of space was constructed from concrete and steel in 95 days. A ten-inch thick roof is supported by 221 columns with a holding capacity of 15 million gallons of water. The Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern celebrates 90 years and is now open to the public for guided tours Thursday through Sunday. Advanced reservations are required. Descending into the underground industrial space is like discovering an ancient ruin. After decades of operation, the reservoir was officially decommissioned in 2007 after an irreparable leak was discovered years before. When Buffalo Bayou Partnership began revitalization and stewardship efforts of 160 acres along Buffalo Bayou, the unused space was considered for underground parking. The historical and architectural significance was soon rediscovered when developers accessed the industrial relic via a maintenance hatch with flashlights.
Before enhancements were made for public access, the only way into the reservoir was through one of the maintenance hatches leading to a narrow 2-foot ledge.
A quarter-mile walkway was installed circumnavigating the space and leading participants through a multisensory tour about the history of water in Houston. Photo by Cody Jones
The impressive reflection of the columns in the 6 inches of remaining water expands the height of space and doubles the columns to a 50-foot optical illusion. The slightest sounds amplify into a hauntingly beautiful chorus of concrete echoes. The rediscovery prompted BBP and the City of Houston with a grant from the Brown Foundation to repurpose the space for the public with the purpose of an art program to promote sound and light. At the end of the tour, participants gather together for a shouting exhale followed by a 17-second long echo. I have to say it is really cool and you get to do it twice! A 20 minute guided tour costs $2. A maximum of 30 people per group. Advanced registration is required and spots fill quickly. Photography is encouraged. To order tickets, visit buffalobayou.org.
*Headline photograph by Cody Jones