Among the numerous attractions you’ll find in Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park is the underground cistern at 105 Sabine Street. The cistern provided Houston with drinking water for 80 years until a leak, discovered in 2007, couldn’t be fixed. Before the water reservoir could be demolished, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership decided it could be saved and repurposed as a park attraction. In reference to the old Roman cistern under Istanbul, the reservoir was named The Cistern, renovated, and opened to the public in May of 2016.
We decide to visit The Cistern on a hot summer day, when the heat index is expected to climb to over 100 degrees F. During the drive to Houston, I keep my eye on the Buffalo Bayou website’s running count of available tour tickets. I could have purchased the tickets in advance, but don’t want to commit to a specific time in case of unexpected delays. A tour begins every 30 minutes and it doesn’t look like we’ll have any problems getting tickets. At $10 a ticket, it’s a somewhat expensive attraction, but considering the uniqueness of it, and the fact that it’s a one-time experience, I’ll pay it.
As luck would have it, we arrive at the Water Works building 3 minutes before the next tour starts. Once we get in line, we don’t have long to wait before the tunnel doors open and we feel a wave of cold air washing over us. What I didn’t know, until the day of our visit, is that we’ve arrived at the tail end of an art exhibition that opened in December, 2016. The work is titled Rain and consists of a light and sound show. It’s an artistic concept perfectly suited to the location.
The reservoir is equal to the size of one and a half football fields. The space is filled with symmetrically spaced pillars and still has a few inches of standing water. The water creates a mirror effect, making the space seem even larger than it is. Sound tends to echo in here, so large sounds will be amplified.
Before entering the space, we’re warned that some people can feel a sense of disequilibrium in the cistern. Once we’ve passed through the tunnel and the space opens up before us, I see that it’s not very well lit. It’s light enough that I can get some pictures, while making sure I don’t use flash. There’s a strange otherworldly serenity to it. Soft, yet rigid in structure. It really is a beautiful space, and I immediately know it was well worth a visit. Fortunately, I use the time well and manage to capture a number of pictures, because what little light there was is suddenly turned off as the light and sound show begins. I realize that the group is beginning the walk around the perimeter of the reservoir. There’s a sense of panic as I wonder how I’ll find my way in the pitch black environment. Fortunately, there is a hand rail that can guide me.
With the sounds of a rainforest during a storm surrounding us, and the flickering rays of light through the imaginary overhead canopy, we make our way around the walkway. It’s beautiful, and very enjoyable while we’re standing still, but shuffling about in the dark makes for quite a tense experience. The time that could have been spent watching the show is instead spent trying to make sure I don’t run into anyone. By the time we get back to where we started, there’s very little time for more pictures once the muted lights are turned back on.
The Rain installation will be in the process of being dismantled by now, but I think there will likely be similar exhibits in the future. If the lighting issues could be solved, maybe with muted lighting that at least allows you to see the ground, I would certainly be interested in visiting again. According to the Buffalo Bayou website, The Cistern is currently closed until July 20th, 2017. Barring another art installation, visitors will again be able to enjoy the architectural details and interesting reflections for the full 20 minutes of the tour.
Once we exit The Cistern, we line up at the Friohana food truck to get some Hawaiian shaved ice. It seems you’ll normally find a couple of food trucks parked at the Water Works entrance on weekends. We settle under the welcome shade of a pavilion nearby until the shaved ice is either eaten or melted and then continue down the Buffalo Bayou path toward downtown Houston. I mention this because even on a hot day, it’s possible to walk here and enjoy the views of downtown Houston. Most of the time, you’ll be under the cover of trees or the highways. As much as I try to avoid the heat, with the right location, it’s still possible to spend time outdoors in the summer.