HOUSTON — What we now call the Buffalo Bayou Cistern was built about 100 years ago, but it just opened to the public in 2016, which means you can take a walk through Houston history.
"This is just one of those places where you can learn about Houston’s water system," says Dwendol Nelson, Buffalo Bayou Park Visitor Services Coordinator. "Most people don’t think about where their water came from."
Built in 1926, the 87,000-square-foot underground reservoir could hold 15 million gallons of Houston’s drinking water.
"Most of it was pumped from underground," Nelson explains. "This was just a storage space. The water would be stored here and then pumped to the central pump where the downtown Aquarium is today. So it’d be processed there, then pumped out."
A leak prompted the City of Houston to decommission the reservoir in 2007 and schedule its demolition a few years later. That’s when the Buffalo Bayou Partnership stepped in.
"This whole project is a project of Buffalo Bayou Partnership to revitalize Houston’s historic waterway, which is Buffalo Bayou," says Nelson.
In 2015, KHOU 11 was the first TV station to climb down a narrow shaft into what was being called “The Cistern” before its renovations and opening in 2016.
When you come for a tour these days, you don’t have to climb down a shaft. Double doors along Sabine St. open to a tunnel that leads you into this piece of Houston history.
"It’s made out of multiple grades of concrete, one of them being marine grade concrete," Nelson says. "We have to keep water down there to keep it preserved just in case it tries to crack or crumble."
The water’s reflection extends 221 25-foot columns, reminiscent of ancient Roman cisterns, the inspiration for the reservoir’s new name.
The Cistern’s atmosphere is unique. So are its acoustics.
"It’s about a 17- to 19-second echo reverberation time, so anything said, screamed or any sound made can echo for a very long time," says Nelson.
If you want to hear how truly amazing those acoustics are, watch the video below in which Nelson, who has a background in musical theater, sings in the Cistern.