Day Trips: Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, Houston

Historic water reservoir becomes one-of-a-kind public space and theatre

Photos by Gerald E. McLeod

The Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern in Houston is like walking into the ancient ruin of an empty spaceship that has become a theatre. The unique man-made cavern on the edge of downtown is strangely inviting and embracing.

Built in 1926 as a 15-million-gallon underground drinking-water reservoir, the concrete tank is roughly the size of 1.5 football fields. The 8-inch-thick ceiling is held up with rows of 221 concrete columns that reflect off the shallow pool of water covering the floor. The vast chamber sprung a leak in 2004 and its use was discontinued in 2007. The city was considering demolishing it when the Buffalo Bayou Partnership offered an alternative – turn it into a one-of-a-kind destination and performance space.

Opened to the public in May 2016, BBP added an entrance, a walkway around the inside perimeter, and subtle lighting to make the Cistern accessible. The project is part of BBP's revitalization of Houston's central water corridor. The nonprofit has turned a 10-mile stretch of the waterway into an attraction instead of an eyesore.

For its first art installation in the Cistern, BBP partnered with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to present Rain: Magdalena Fernández at the Houston Cistern. A Venezuelan artist, Fernández repurposed a one-minute, 56-second surrealistic video that evokes an evening rain shower enhanced by the columns, the reflection off the floor, and the 17-second echo in the chamber. The show continues through June 4, 2017.

Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern is open for tours Wednesday through Sunday (Thursdays are free), but tickets must be secured in advance at

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Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Magdalena Fernández

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