Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern

Houston, Texas

The Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern was once an underground reservoir for the people of Houston, now it provides them with community art.

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Discover Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern

The Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern was an underground reservoir in Houston, Texas, originally designed to store drinking water for the city. After its function became obsolete after the rise of new technology the Cistern was facing demolition. However, instead of being demolished, it was repurposed into a public space. The Cistern opened to the public in May 2016, with its first art exhibit debuting in December 2016. Today, it is a unique venue dedicated to visual art and sound installations.

Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern 3
- Nelo Hotsuma

Origins of the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern

The Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern was originally commissioned in 1926. It was an underground reservoir, designed by engineer J.W. Turner, to store and distribute clean water to the growing population of Houston.

Spanning 87,500 square feet—equivalent to 1.5 football fields—the Cistern could hold up to 15 million gallons of water. The structure featured tapered concrete walls, ranging from 8 inches at the top to 18 inches at the bottom, and 221 slender concrete columns, each 25 feet tall, supporting a thick concrete roof. These columns created a forest-like atmosphere within the Cistern.

For decades, the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern played a crucial role in supplying water to Houston, until the advancement of technology gradually made the Cistern obsolete. In 2007, an irreparable leak was discovered, leading to the decommissioning of the reservoir. The Cistern was then abandoned, left forgotten beneath the city.

The History of Buffalo Bayou Park

The area surrounding the Cistern, now known as Buffalo Bayou Park, has been designated for parkland since the early 1900s. Over the decades, the City of Houston acquired tracts of land around the Bayou to create a city park. However, increasing development led to the subdivision of the land into smaller parks and public spaces, making it difficult for pedestrians to access the park. In the 1950s, attempts by the Army Corps of Engineers to improve drainage by stripping vegetation and straightening the Bayou ultimately failed.

In 2011, the City of Houston and the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP) agreed to develop the site. The $50 million renovation project led to the official reopening of Buffalo Bayou Park in October 2015. Eleanor Tinsley Park, a section of Buffalo Bayou Park, was also renovated as part of this project.

Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern 8
- Anthony G. Reyes

Rediscovering the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern

In 2010, the BBP rediscovered the Cistern while developing Buffalo Bayou Park. Recognising its historical and architectural significance, BBP collaborated with Houston-based architecture and engineering firm Page to restore and repurpose the Cistern. The restoration intended to transform the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern into a public space for art installations.

Transforming the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern

Structural integrity was a primary concern due to years of water infiltration, resulting in cracks and leaks. The damp nature of the Cistern’s interior was also perfect for mould and mildew growth, threatening both the structure and its features. Extensive restoration efforts focused on removing debris to make the cistern's walls and columns safe and creating waterproofing and flood protection systems to ensure long-term stability.

Enhancements included the installation of an entrance tunnel, a floating walkway, painting the columns, and internal LED lighting. The lighting design casts dramatic shadows and highlights the cistern’s Cathedral-like grandeur. The floating steel-grating walkway was introduced to provide up-close views without disturbing the delicate ecosystem within.

An interpretive centre was also established to educate visitors about the cistern’s historical significance and role in Houston’s water management. And to manage public accessibility to the Cistern, a visitor management plan was set up, featuring guided tours and strict guidelines, to prevent overcrowding and harm.

Together, these efforts have transformed the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern into a cultural landmark; a piece of the past that will be preserved for generations to come.

Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern 7
- Nelo Hotsuma

Features of the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern

Upon descending into the Cistern, visitors are greeted by a dimly lit, ethereal environment. The following unique design elements transform the underground reservoir into a hauntingly beautiful venue.

Natural Lighting

Despite being underground, the Cistern is naturally illuminated by small openings in the roof called oculi, which allow natural light to filter into the space. Additionally, the constant underground temperature makes it an energy-efficient space.

Reflective Pool

Originally capable of holding 15 million gallons of water, the Cistern’s sheer size is one of its most striking features. Today its space is emphasised by a reflective pool that mirrors the ceiling above.

Concrete Columns and Roof

There are 221 slender concrete columns, spaced 25 feet apart creating a grid-like pattern, inside the Cistern. They create a visual effect of endless repetition, inducing a sense of awe and wonder. These columns also support the Cistern’s two-foot-thick concrete roof, lending a cathedral-like grandeur to the structure.

LED Lighting System

Carefully placed LED lights highlight the details of the Cistern’s space and architecture. The lights change colours and intensities, as visitors explore the Cistern.

Unique Cistern Acoustics

Its underground location and absence of external noise result in a distinctive 17-second echo that amplifies even the slightest sound. Visitors can experience this by simply speaking or clapping their hands.

Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern 4
- Sheila Scarborough

Art Installations in the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern

The Cistern’s unique features provide a stunning backdrop for its art installations. These installations range from large-scale sculptures to immersive audiovisual experiences and have been created by both local and international artists. Since its repurposing, it has hosted the following art installations:

"Rain: Magdalena Fernández at the Houston Cistern"

In 2016, Venezuelan artist Magdalena Fernández debuted her light and sound experience: “Rain: Magdalena Fernández at the Houston Cistern.” Visitors walking through the installation were surrounded by the sounds of raindrops and reflections of light on the water.

"Time No Longer" by Anri Sala

In 2021, artist Anri Sala presented "Time No Longer," an art installation that explored the relationship between time and sound. The installation featured a series of speakers suspended from the ceiling. This experience challenged visitors’ perception of time, as it blended various melodies into a timeless cacophony of sound throughout the Cistern.

"The Source" by Carlos Cruz-Diez

"The Source" by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez is a permanent art installation at the Cistern. It uses coloured lights that interact with the architecture, enhancing and softening the industrial tone of the Cistern’s features.

Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern 6
- Sajith T S

Things to do at Buffalo Bayou Park

Buffalo Bayou Park, stretching 2.3 miles along the banks of the Buffalo Bayou, features an array of recreational activities, including a skate park, picnic areas, children's play zones, a dog park, and miles of bike and hiking trails. Here’s a closer look at things to do in the park:

Johnny Steele Dog Park

Named after Houston architect Johnny Steele, this 2-acre dog park opened in January 2015. The Johnny Steele Dog Park has play areas for large and small dogs, a pond for swimming, and dog washing stations.

Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark

The Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark, named after Houston attorney Joe Jamail, is a 30,000 square foot facility. Completed in 2008 at a cost of $2.7 million and renovated in 2016, this world-class skate park has hosted numerous events and competitions. Its design and amenities cater to skaters of all levels.

Barbara Fish Daniel Nature Play Area and Picnic Pavilion

Located near the skatepark, the Barbara Fish Daniel Nature Play Area and Picnic Pavilion offers a variety of natural play elements. This area includes a boulder rock scramble, a stream and waterfall, a sandpit, climbing logs and stones, a slide, a tree house with a climbing net and a picnic pavilion. The picnic pavilion is available for event rentals such as birthday parties.

Eleanor Tinsley Park

Eleanor Tinsley Park is a key feature of Buffalo Bayou Park. Its large lawn area and views of the downtown skyline make it a popular spot for picnics, outdoor activities, and community gatherings. It also hosts regular events and concerts.

Waugh Bridge Bat Colony

For a unique natural spectacle, visitors can watch the flight of the Waugh Bridge Bat Colony. Each evening thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats take flight, creating a wonderful spectacle against the backdrop of the darkening sky.

Lost Lake

Lost Lake is a calming setting with water features and lush landscapes. The area includes a visitor centre, a café, and paddleboard rentals. It’s an ideal spot for relaxation and recreation.

Houston Police Officers Memorial

The Houston Police Officers Memorial is a strikingly designed landmark honouring the city's fallen police officers.

Tapley Tributary

The Tapley Tributary is an environmental art installation that enhances the park's natural beauty while also contributing to water management and conservation efforts within the park.

Rachel Rossin in the Cistern

Starting 2nd February 2024, visitors can experience "Haha real," an original media and sound installation by Rachel Rossin. This site-specific work, inspired by the classic children’s story, The Velveteen Rabbit, will be on view for approximately nine months and transforms the Cistern into a different world.

Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern 1
Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark - Ed Uthman

Guided Tours of the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern

There are several docent-led tours on offer. These include:

Cistern History Tours

For those interested in the history and architecture of the Cistern, fully guided history tours are available. These tours offer insights into the Cistern’s past, including its construction in 1926 as a drinking water reservoir and its restoration and repurposing by the Buffalo Bayou Partnership.

Private Cistern Tours

Groups can enjoy a private tour of the Cistern, accommodating up to 30 people. These tours provide a unique outing and are scheduled based on availability. Note that private tours are not available on the first Thursday of each month.

Sound Healing Meditation

Visitors can practise meditation in the Cistern’s unique acoustic environment, led by Union is Creation. The sound healing sessions use singing bowls and wind chimes to promote mindfulness and connectivity. Guests are encouraged to bring their own cushions or mats for comfort.

Buffalo Bayou Boat Tours

Buffalo Bayou Boat Tours organise 30-minute cruises along the bayou. These tours provide a chance to see herons, jumping fish, and even alligators basking on the banks. Tours depart from Allen’s Landing and run from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, with the last tour leaving at 1:30 pm. Tickets cost $7 for adults and $5 for children aged 4-12, while children under 4 are not permitted.

Bike & Boat Rentals

Visitors can explore Buffalo Bayou Park on foot, by bike, or on the water. Bicycles can be rented from four BCycle stations along the trails or from Bayou Bike Rentals located at The Water Works. Kayaks and canoes are available year-round from Bayou City Adventures at Sabine Promenade.

Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern 5
- Sajith T S

Visiting the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern

A visit to the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern is a good way to see contemporary art installations within a historical setting. But it is important to note that the Cistern is a dimly lit space without windows, which may be challenging for some. If you experience difficulties, please proceed to the nearest exit. Full participation in the tour involves walking a quarter-mile in 25 minutes. Stationary or seated tours are available upon request.

For those hesitant about descending into a dark, enclosed space, the Down Periscope project by Donald Lipski is an alternative way to view the Cistern from above. Additionally, a 360-degree virtual tour is available online for a detailed look at the interior.

Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern
- Anthony G. Reyes

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Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern Questions


What you need to know

Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern
105-B Sabine St, Houston, TX 77007
29.762299, -95.376045
Tips before you visit

To maintain a safe and pleasant environment in Buffalo Bayou Park:

  • No scooters, skateboards, glass containers, or alcohol consumption.
  • No unauthorised sales activities, smoking, barbeque grills, or littering.
  • No hunting, use of firearms, fishing, swimming, or staking.
  • Motorised vehicles are restricted to roadways and parking areas.
  • Plants and animals are protected and should not be disturbed.
  • Noise levels should be kept low out of respect for others.