Know your Home: Cisterns

The first time I climbed down the (only slightly rickety) stairs into my house’s unfinished “Minnesota basement,” I noticed that one interior cinder-block wall looked as if it had been knocked in with a sledgehammer. Peering into the darkness through the snaggle-toothed hole, I found a large, sunken rectangle full of broken bricks, chunks of dirt, and occasional corpses (only rodents as far as I know). After a moment of thinking “what is this thing?”, I realized that this thoroughly revolting and unsanitary mouse necropolis was, in fact, the cistern where the original owners of the house stored water for washing, watering, and even cooking. While I’ll keep my deliciously uncontaminated city water, I’m glad we have a cistern down there, and I’ve even started cleaning it out when I think my wife and kids aren’t looking. Cisterns like mine are a part of a long history, part of our human heritage, but they also have exciting possibilities in the present and for the future.

In 13th century BCE Greece, the rulers of the citadel at Mycenae, in a doomed effort to preserve their home and civilization, constructed a subterranean cistern within their fortifications to ensure that their palace would have water in times of danger. Pitch black and supported by a corbelled vault, a staircase still leads down some 20 yards from ground level to a now-dry platform (it’s much more impressive in person than in the picture), a testament to the vital importance of water and an eerie reminder of the mysterious demise of the entire Mycenaean civilization only a few decades after the cistern was built. This cistern actually came late to the game – the oldest ones we know of date from the 3rd millennium, and they remained an important part of life, especially in dry climates, until quite recently. It was the system of cisterns at Masada, capable of holding some 10 million gallons of water, that allowed the rebels there to hold out against a Roman siege; the Cistern of Philoxenos in Constantinople supplied the city with water for a millennium until the city was sacked by the Ottomans; and at El Jadida, the Portuguese in the 16th century decided that even an armory was less critical than a cistern in times of siege. Why do my examples always seem to end in disaster, you ask? Guess who’s married to a military historian…

Cistern of Philoxenos

More recently, cisterns have served perhaps more mundane but no less important purposes. Throughout the 19th century, cistern systems caught and contained rainwater to provide homes with water for virtually every domestic task except drinking (and even that sometimes), and in many areas more homes were built with than without them. Even the White House had cisterns as part of its original water supply, one of which was rediscovered during renovations in the 1920s. Cisterns were usually built right against the house’s foundation, either under porches or on the exterior, with access to the basin through hatches at the top and to the water by means of pipes and taps in the basement. This is the era of my own cistern as well – it’s less impressive than the ancient ones, but I also haven’t fallen victim to a siege, so I’m not complaining. As homes were remodeled and connected to other water sources, cisterns were abandoned, either just closed off or used as receptacles for various unwanted items (this story from the New York Times from 1986 details some of the fascinating historical items that have emerged from cisterns over time). 

Though it might seem hard to miss a giant water tank, cisterns are being discovered all the time, either because a homeowner discovers a metal access pipe or because archaeologists decide to tunnel under Jerusalem. So what do you do if, like me, you find an abandoned cistern in your yard or basement? Yard cisterns are trickier, since access is difficult and ventilation almost non-existent. Until very recently, the only answer seemed to be to spend a couple thousand dollars having the thing filled and capped, or even removed completely, and this is still what most people do. Most cisterns are in pretty rough shape at this point, they often get in the way of other outdoor projects, and they can be hazards for children and pets if their top access points have not been sealed off or if they are in danger of collapse. It’s easier just to ignore basement cisterns, since they pose less of a safety hazard, but even if they’re dry and snug, they’ve most often been used to store rubbish or items-you-don’t-want-to-get-rid-of-but-realistically-know-you’re-never-going-to-use.


In recent years, though, people have been getting interested in ways to make use of these antiquated architectural wonders. And since they were originally constructed to collect and hold water, many people are deciding to use them to, well, hold water. If your cistern is well-sealed and still connected to usable pipes, and if it’s not totally full of debris, you can actually do this with a minimum of effort and expense. But even if the cistern is showing its age, it may be worth it to explore refurbishing it (this blog post from Rain Brothers outlines the process): like rain barrels, cisterns can provide water for gardens and lawns and help you both cut your water bills and provide a “green” irrigation option – and cisterns hold a lot more water than rain barrels so can have a greater impact, both financially and environmentally. On a much larger scale, Dominican University  has revived a 60,000 gallon cistern from the 1920s as a major piece of an initiative to make the school more environmentally friendly, using the 4-6 million gallons of water the cistern collects annually to heat and cool a science building and to water gardens and the soccer field.  

If you want to get more creative, especially with a dry basement cistern, there are certainly some good ideas out there. Some homeowners have turned cisterns into wine cellars, either by installing stairs from a top access point (as in the picture) or digging a tunnel/bashing in a wall for access from a basement. A few outdoor cisterns have become swimming pools or the bases for fountains, and one small hotel in Spain has made its old cistern into a breakfast room. The city of Houston has even opened up an old cistern for tours and art installations, and while this may be a bit ambitious for a home cistern, it is a good reminder that imagination and dilapidated water storage aren’t mutually exclusive.

As for my cistern, I’m going to keep cleaning it out a little bit at a time while I wait for inspiration to strike.