It’s impossible to miss the seven towering pillars as you stroll along the Sesquicentennial Park promenade or across Preston Street Bridge. By day, the looming 70-foot structures that make up Seven Wonders echo the city’s impressive skyline, while they double as enormous lanterns that bathe the nearby Buffalo Bayou and the back of the Wortham Center in a warm glow by night. Yet Seven Wonders, also called Pillars of the Community, is far more than just a hat-tip to local architecture or a ginormous night light. It is designed to act as a time capsule, a history book, and a crystal ball—capturing a single moment of Houston life, commemorating a historic event, and looking toward the city’s future all at once.
Dreamed up by famed artist and Fifth Ward native Mel Chin, Seven Wonders was envisioned in 1986 as part of the park project to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the city’s founding. The pillars wouldn’t actually be installed until 1998, when the park was finally completed, but the delay ended up working to Chin’s advantage, giving the artist time to work in even more detail. Each stainless-steel column is composed of 150 filigreed cutouts that highlight Houston’s history through the themes of agriculture, energy, manufacturing, medicine, philanthropy, technology, and transportation. Since the project was so far behind schedule, Chin decided to incorporate an element of the city’s future as well and put out a call asking HISD students born in 1986 to illustrate one of the original themes. After receiving thousands of submissions, Chin took 1,050 designs and added them into the pillars’ lacelike cutouts. Of course, working with children is always a risk; some of the youngsters got a little creative with their interpretations. One pillar sports the blueprint for a “butt warmer” complete with an on-and-off switch. The theme for that one? Innovation, obviously.