Houston is a city that tends not to build things below ground. The only basements you will find here are in the foundations of the skyscrapers downtown. The ground is low-lying and soft, and also prone to flooding, so it’s not very practical to build downward. That’s why I was intrigued when I first read about a giant underground museum called the “Buffalo Bayou Cistern.”
Buffalo Bayou is the glorified ditch that is the main waterway through central Houston, and has several miles of nice parks and hiking paths along its length. The bayou for the most part is not navigable, and does not carry enough water to support the needs of a major city, though it does occasionally swell and require flood control by means of two large reservoirs west of town. Nevertheless, Houston is a young city, and as recently as the last century, Buffalo Bayou was its primary water supply.
In 1926, the city constructed an underground reservoir to store water from the bayou for use as drinking and fire water. The vast cavern is hidden under a grassy field the size of one and a half football fields in Buffalo Bayou Park, directly in the shadow of the city’s tallest buildings. It was used all the way up until 2007, when it was decommissioned due to leakage.
Now, drained of water and saved from demolition by a local parks organization, the cistern is open to the public to admire. Inside, the ceiling is supported by 221 concrete columns arranged almost-but-not-quite symmetrically, creating a depth perspective that makes the space seem larger than it is. A walkway encircles the perimeter of the cavern along the edge of a steep slope leading down to the few feet of water that remains at the bottom.
As a place to store water for the city, the Buffalo Bayou Cistern is very similar in form to the ancient Roman cisterns in Turkey and Italy. But as a place to visit, Houston’s cistern is not nearly as grand nor as intricate as its ancient counterparts. What it lacks in architectural splendor, though, it makes up for with lasers. At the time of my visit, the cistern was hosting an art installation that uses an array of lights to cover nearly every surface with moving patterns. Even people do not interfere with the effect, as visitors are given white lab coats to wear, allowing them to become canvases for the light. It’s a creative way to preserve an otherwise obsolete piece of Houston’s history!