- Associated Press - Monday, May 9, 2016

HOUSTON (AP) - In early summer of 2010, nobody thought much about the odd artificial hill where, every year, the city of Houston launched Fourth of July fireworks.

Next to Jamail Skate Park, the hill lay inside a strip of land that Buffalo Bayou Partnership was preparing to buy and transform into a park. Hills being rare in Houston, the partnership’s consultants thought they might be able to put this one to good use - maybe as the site of the park’s concert hall, which would then have a stunning, up-close view of downtown.

And maybe, they thought, the park could also find a use for the enormous underground space that they knew must exist beneath the hill. It had been a drinking-water reservoir, built in the 1920s, a space as large as one and a half football fields. Now the city was taking bids to demolish the leaky old thing, to remove its concrete and fill it with dirt.

But, the consultants wondered, could the park instead put the reservoir to use? As underground parking, maybe? Or to store mulch?

They had the city’s workmen open the hatches on top of the hill. Then, armed with flashlights, the consultants climbed down a skinny metal ladder, into the humid dark.

And there they encountered the sublime.

Light from the overhead hatches pierced the blackness in dramatic shafts - a moody chiaroscuro that Velasquez or Rembrandt would have loved. As the consultants’ eyes adjusted, they saw hundreds of slender concrete columns, 25 feet tall, stretching in rows to the far edges of the velvety blackness. Reflected in the six or so inches of water that remained in the reservoir, the columns looked even taller, even more magical.

The place sounded special, too: As if someone had turned up the reverb to 11. A handclap’s echo would bounce back and forth, from cement wall to cement wall, for an astonishing 17 seconds, the sound waves colliding with each other, ebbing and flowing, as if in a physics demonstration.

Without thinking, the consultants lowered their voices. But even their whispers reverberated.

This very practical, industrial site felt … sacred.

On Friday, when the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern opens to the public, Houstonians will finally be able to experience the place’s dark beauty for themselves.

Architect Larry Speck, a principal at Page, and a group from Buffalo Bayou Partnership visited the Cistern recently and explained what they’ve done. “We discussed lots of possibilities,” Speck told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1TOIOJ1 ). “We dismissed the idea of parking - the columns are too close together for that anyway - but there was the thought that we could put in a restaurant that looked into the cistern. That would have ruined it. We decided to stick to something like the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.”

To meet safety codes, the Indiana Jones aspects of a visit to the Cistern had to be addressed. Normal human beings wouldn’t be willing to carry an air monitor and have a winch available for rescues. They wouldn’t want to clamber through a scary hatch on the roof, then down a narrow ladder. And they wouldn’t want to go home covered in the red silty mud that coated the floor and walls.

With $1.7 million from the Brown Foundation, the foundation made only the necessary upgrades. They created a handicapped-accessible ground-floor entryway: a dim curved hallway embedded with a low line of LED lights. It’s a place for eyes to dilate, for anticipation to build.

The hall leads to a door cut in the Cistern’s concrete side. Through it, visitors step onto a six-foot-wide catwalk halfway between the Cistern’s floor and ceiling. Originally just a naked concrete ledge intended for maintenance workers, the catwalk is now protected by a spare guardrail to prevent visitors from tumbling a dozen feet down into the shallow water below.

But largely, the place retains its astonishing, accidental power. The luckiest visitors will be there when the conditions are most magical: When the ceiling hatches are open, letting in those shafts of heavenly light; when the LED lights on the guardrails are as dim as their settings and the law will allow; and when the other visitors fall silent.

Your heart rate drops. Your breath slows.

Soon, said Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the Cistern could host modern art installations, or maybe musical performances. But for now, the Cistern itself is plenty to take in.

Speck looked out at the columns’ perfect reflections in the dead-still water. “It’s all about reflection,” he said in a low voice. “And something here feels ancient, like an Egyptian hypostyle hall.”

Speck, Olson and the rest of their party stayed a little longer. A photographer snapped photos. There were calls to be made and a plane to catch, but no one seemed ready to return to the profane world.

Someone clapped - someone always claps - and the echo seemed as though it would never end.

Outside the Cistern, Houston is bright and busy, a place where traffic is terrible and time is money. The sanctuaries of our best-known churches have giant TV screens. You drive around, looking at new buildings, wondering whatever happened to the city you remember.

Inside the Cistern, it’s dark and still.


Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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