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The Water Works

The nondescript entrance near The Water Works visitor center looks like a maintenance closet. If not for the line of people waiting outside the door, you’d probably miss the passageway into Houston’s recently revitalized underground “ruin”—the Cistern.

Built in 1926, the 87,500-square-foot cavern was one of Houston’s first drinking-water reservoirs, holding 15 million gallons. (The city now uses 500 million gallons daily). Decommissioned in 2007, the space was one step away from becoming a parking lot until the Partnership rediscovered the site.

“BBP is committed to historic preservation, so preserving the Cistern was very important to us,” says organization president Anne Olson. “It is so unique; it just had to be saved.”

After a minimally invasive $1.2 million renovation, including the addition of an elevated sidewalk around its quarter-mile exterior, the reimagined reservoir opened to the public in May of last year. Tickets are $5, and 40 people—the maximum let in at a time—typically walk through its snake-like concrete tunnel every half hour. As of November, nearly 16,000 visitors had taken a tour.

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Magdalena Fernández, "Rain"

When it’s your turn to venture down, the temperature quickly drops; then, the narrow passageway opens into a cathedral-like cavern of 221 two-story, symmetrical columns, reflected in a three-inch pool of water. It is vast, eerie and elegant, reminiscent of ancient Roman ruins, but a stone’s throw from downtown rush hour.

The BBP plans to host periodic art exhibits here. The first, Rain: Magdalena Fernández at the Houston Cistern, a collaboration between BBP and the Museum of Fine Arts, is already open and runs through June. The installation projects a two-minute video by the Venezuelan-born artist into the vast space, set to a soundtrack by the a cappella Slovenian choir Perpetuum Jazzile, which is amplified by the Cistern’s impressive 17-second echo. It looks and sounds like rain, a perfect fit for the previously water-filled space.

“I have been working with water since 1993; the drops and rain are paramount components of my research,” says Fernández. “I couldn’t have been happier when they asked me to install Rain. It is an extraordinary opportunity to re-enact a discussion on water within the Cistern.”

Rain runs thru June 4. $8–$10: 3:30–7 Wed and Fri, 10–7 Sat–Sun. Free: 12:30–7 Thurs. Separate tours of the Cistern are available for $5 on select days; call for more information. 105 Sabine St. 713-752-0314.

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