Houston’s reservoir could serve as as underground attraction

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by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on July 15, 2013 at 10:40 PM

Updated Friday, Jul 19 at 3:32 PM

HOUSTON -- Skaters rocket around steep ramps and concrete bowls, flipping in acrobatic moves seem to defy both gravity and common sense, at the Jamail Skate Park on the banks of Buffalo Bayou. So it's easy to overlook the hill that hides the secret.

That's right. Behind the skate park stands something you don't see much in Houston: a hill. Even though it stands alongside a bayou, it seems so oddly out of place you've got to wonder what's under that grassy mound.

"I don't know," said Collin Snellings, a boy riding his skateboard around the park. "Maybe fossils of species of animals."

For the longest time, almost nobody knew.

"It was a secret," said Guy Hagstette, a consultant for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, who tells a fascinating story about the buried treasure that was Houston's first city reservoir.

It's easy to forget that city governments haven't always provided their citizens with water. Only after a devastating fire in 1878 did Houston's city council decide to find a reliable source of water pressure.

The city's first water service, the Houston Water Works Company, was privately owned until a series of deadly fires and scandals about contaminated water dramatically demonstrated its shortcomings. The city government finally bought the water company in 1906, permanently putting Houston in the water business.

The reservoir was built in 1927, Hagstette said, but at some point it sprung a leak and it was drained. So it has sat unused ever since. Nonetheless, photographs taken inside the underground reservoir show that it has unintended potential as an attraction for Buffalo Bayou Park.

Huge concrete columns standing two-and-a-half stories tall line an underground cavern longer than a football field and bigger than a city block. Shafts of light shooting down from open hatches create a dramatic effect seemingly borrowed from a Spielberg movie.

"They've drained it, but there's a little bit of water on the bottom," Hagstette said. "And that reflects and tends to double the perceived height of the space because of the reflections. And it's unlike just about any space I've ever been in."

What makes the sight even more startling is the sound. The long and open underground space unimpeded by anything but those columns creates a unique acoustic environment.

"So you clap your hand and you wait a second or a second and a half to hear the echo. And then it keeps going. We timed 17 seconds for the reverberations to die down."

"I've got to say, it's mind-blowing," said Doug Smith of SmartGeoMetrics, a small business that volunteered to shoot three-dimensional images of the underground space they're now calling "the cistern."

Now the city faces a simple but hard question: What do you do with something like this?

At first, Hagstette said, they thought they might be able to use the space as a parking lot for the expanded Buffalo Bayou Park. But as soon he saw the reservoir, he knew it had greater potential.

"We think that a really talented artist -- especially artists who work in sound and light and taking advantage of natural phenomena -- could really do some amazing stuff down here," he said.

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