Last year in the spring, a wondrous local attraction was unveiled. It’s called the Cistern, and that’s just what it is: an underground concrete cistern the size of one and a half football fields – nearly two acres – that once held 15 million gallons of Houston drinking water. It’s cool, dark and features more than 220 25-foot-tall slender concrete columns, as well as a 17-second echo.
The Cistern was built in 1926 by the City of Houston to support the city’s water system for fire fighting (via increased water pressure) and drinking water storage. It was used for nearly eight decades until an irreparable leak was discovered in the mid-2000s and the reservoir was decommissioned.
But the water department’s loss is our gain. This marvelous spot, located east of River Oaks on the north side of Buffalo Bayou, is now open to the public for tours.
The Buffalo Bayou Partnership rediscovered the site in 2011 as it was developing the $58 million Buffalo Bayou Park project that has given us all the new bridges, trails and landscaping. At the time, the City of Houston was sourcing vendors to demolish the space. The BBP executives had a light-bulb moment.
Using grant money from the Brown Foundation, the non-profit BBP took over management of the underground site and began to work on not just restoring it, but making the Cistern into a public space for temporary environmental art installations.
Larry Speck, a senior principal with Houston-based architecture and engineer firm Page, said last year that “descending into The Cistern the first time was like discovering some ancient ruin. It was so strange and exotic in the setting and clearly ‘lost’ to people’s consciousness.” It might not be so ancient as Rome’s catacombs or Paris’ sewer tunnels, but it is a remarkable experience nevertheless and fun to show to out-of-town visitors.
Speck’s company designed a ground-level entry that is meant to help visitors transition from the outside world down into the Cistern. Inside, improvements include a six-foot-wide “shelf” with handrails around the perimeter of the Cistern and gentle lighting. There’s often a couple inches of water in the Cistern, but visitors walk on the wrap-around walkway, so you won’t get your feet wet.
The inaugural art installation, which debuted last December, was called Rain: Magdalena Fernández at the Houston Cistern. It was a digitally programmed light-and-sound show that evoked a rain-soaked night. The acoustic montage was made by the artist using sounds made by members of the a cappella Slovenian choir Pertuum Jazzile, who snap their fingers, slap the palms of their hands against their legs and stamp their heels on wood to create the gentle patter of rain. This installation closed in June, but look for more art installations to be announced.
In the meantime, visitors can make online reservations to visit just the “plain” Cistern. Admission is $5 per person (free on Thursdays) for a 30-minute docent-led tour. Note that children younger than 9 are not allowed. Get to the Cistern from Memorial Drive by taking the Sabine Street exit toward the bayou’s bank. There is free public parking.
Here’s one more cool thing: Atop the dome of the Cistern, on the Brown Foundation Lawn in a jasmine-covered steel arbor, is Down Periscope, an installation by New York artist Donald Lipski. Peer around inside the Cistern on your computer or phone by accessing the periscope via houstonperiscope.com.