Historical Relic Discovered in Texas

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Tony Maples Photography


In 2011, Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP) in Houston, Texas rediscovered a site that housed a historical and architectural underground treasure. While developing a $58 million Buffalo Bayou Park project, BBP discovered this important part of Houston History and transformed what once was a former underground drinking water reservoir into a public space know known as the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern. The Cistern is reminiscent of the ancient Roman cisterns under Istanbul, according to their website.

The Discovery

Cistern 3

Photo: BBP Cistern Photo/Katya Horner

Built in 1926, the Cistern was one of the city’s first underground reservoirs, it supported the municipal water system’s goals of fire suppression (water pressure) and drinking water storage, states it’s website. It operated for decades until the mid-2000’s when the reservoir sprung an irreparable leak and was decommissioned.

According to BBP, “The space was left in as raw of a state as possible to not lose the natural beauty of the columns, light reflection offer by the water and sound amplification.” Realizing the gem they had rediscovered, BBP and the City of Houston worked to repurpose the space and transform it not only into a public space, but a space to also house temporary, environmental art installations in the future.

With secured grants of over $1.7 million from The Brown Foundation, Inc., the Cistern was brought up to code. “The architecture and engineering firm, Page, was charged with designing a ground-level entry structure to help transition visitors from the outside world to the Cistern and making improvements to the shelf on the perimeter of the space to create a 6-foot wide accessible walkway with guardrails,” states BBP’s site.

The Tour

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Photo: Sonia Ramirez

On May 13, 2016, tours of the Cistern began with tickets selling out as fast as lightning. As word spread, many have traveled near and far to see this amazing display of Houston history long gone, but not forgotten.  The tour is about 30 minutes with a guided tour throughout. Below are a few fun facts on the Cistern:

  • It is 87,500 square feet or the size of 1.5 football fields
  • It has 221– 25-foot tall, slender concrete columns that span the space
  • Holds 15 million gallons of water
  • 8” thick concrete roof and 8-18” thick concrete side walls
  • 17-second echo
  • SWA Landscape Architect Kevin Shanley first called the reservoir “the Cistern” because it reminded him of the ancient Roman cisterns under Istanbul.

As you descend into the darkness of the space, you are transformed into a place much like what an ancient ruin in Egypt could be like. With dim light and long walkways leading you around the space, you are immediately greeted with towering, beautiful columns sitting atop a layer of water and surrounded by concrete, empty walls that you can imagine will bestow Houston historical facts and art installations to further enhance the space in the future.

Sneak Peak


Photo: BBP Cistern Photo/Katya Horner

To extend the experience of the Cistern, New York artist Donald Lipski’s Down Periscope, was also unveiled. “The installation, commissioned by Houston Arts Alliance in partnership with the City of Houston Department of Public Works and Engineering, sits atop the Cistern on The Brown Foundation Lawn and allows park and online visitors to peer into the periscope and view the Cistern,” shares its website. For a look at this magnificent view into the Cistern visit-Houston Periscope. Tours are Thursdays/Fridays: 3 to 7 p.m. and Saturdays/Sundays: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. To purchase tickets and note the rules and regulations of the Cistern make sure to visit buffalobayou.org.

About Buffalo Bayou Partnership

Created in 1986, Buffalo Bayou Partnership is the 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization transforming and revitalizing Buffalo Bayou, Houston’s most significant natural resource. Buffalo Bayou Partnership maintains and operates Buffalo Bayou Park with funding of $2 million per year provided by the Downtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) #3. For more information, visit www.buffalobayou.org.