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Hit the Road With Chet Garner

What Lies Beneath

Buffalo Bayou’s forgotten cistern returns to public life

Fifteen years ago, on a visit to Istanbul, I descended into a damp underground labyrinth of stone columns known as the Basilica Cistern, which dates to Roman times. The scene was otherworldly, and I thought I would never again see anything like it. Little did I know that I would visit another subterranean marvel that would recall this otherworldly sensation—only this time it would be in Houston.

To understand Houston, one must understand Buffalo Bayou. This muddy waterway flows through the heart of the city and once drove Houston’s economy. Simply put, without Buffalo Bayou there would be no Houston. In recent decades, a partnership between the city and a dedicated bayou nonprofit has reclaimed the long-neglected waterway, which now runs through world-class parks and green spaces. The Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, however, was ignored.

The cistern was built in 1926 to hold approximately 15 million gallons of water for the residents of Houston. It did its job well for more than 80 years, until an irreparable leak caused it to be decommissioned in 2007. With no need for a leaking water tank, the city condemned the space and scheduled it for demolition. While the city searched for a demolition crew, members of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership discovered the space and decided it should be saved. One architect called it “The Cistern” because it reminded him of the one in Istanbul. The name stuck.

At ground level, the only evidence of the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern is an unremarkable door set into a small hill. That’s why it went virtually unnoticed for eight decades. And it is the reason I missed the entrance three times when I first tried to visit. However, as soon as I stepped through the door and descended into the mysterious sunken world, I knew I was standing somewhere special, in one of only two underground cisterns in the world open for public tours.

I felt dwarfed by the massive room, which measures approximately one and a half football fields. The cistern’s 221 concrete columns, each 25 feet tall, gave me the sense that I was standing in an underground Greek temple or even a subterranean Lincoln Memorial. That was a jaw-dropping experience. Then came the light and sound show.

Our tour guide bounced a single flashlight beam off the ceiling and into the 4 inches of water covering the cistern floor. Suddenly, the ground became an entrance into another dimension. OK, not really, but it did transform into a huge reflecting pool with a perfect upside-down reflection of the cistern. Our guide prompted us to be quiet, and when everything was still, she let out a single shout that reverberated off the walls for a full 17 seconds. I’ve been in dozens of canyons, including that grand one in Arizona, and I’ve never heard anything like it. We spent the next hour yelling and shining our phone lights into the abyss.

Even though the room feels like a work of art itself, the cistern lives a new life as an art space. With guidance from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, artists from around the world visit the Bayou City to take advantage of the cistern’s unique sound and light capabilities for their own installations.

In Texas, we have countless buildings, including our Capitol and many county courthouses, that were built to impress. Isn’t it ironic that one of our most unique and awe-inspiring spaces was built as a functional reservoir that was never intended to see the light of day? I left the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern inspired to keep exploring because if something so cool can go unmentioned for 80 years, imagine what other treasures await discovery.