BROWNSVILLE — People who showed up Saturday at the Brownsville federal courthouse received a very different experience from those who have business there during the week.
Reynaldo G. Garza-Filemon B. Vela Federal Courthouse opened its doors to allow the public to peruse its collection of photographs by Robert Runyon, who captured the Rio Grande Valley during the early 20th century, and etched glass panels by artist Michaela Mahady.
The event was the first of its kind at the courthouse and was organized by Mitte Cultural District board member Karen Ballard. She had the idea after joining U.S. District Judge Rolando Olvera’s staff as a judicial assistant in 2015.
Ballard said visiting during normal business hours can be intimidating to people interested in the artwork. About 60 people toured the courthouse Saturday.
“People are leery of coming in here,” she said, gesturing toward the guards who man the security desk at the building’s entrance. “If you say you just want to come in and walk around, you realize they’re here to protect us.”
Tony Knopp, emeritus history professor from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, led two tours that focused largely on Runyon’s works.
“They’re unique to our area,” Knopp said of the photos, “but certainly a unique historical period from Texas.”
The photographs that adorn the walls on each of the courthouse’s three floors are part of 8,000 pictures taken by Runyon that are now owned by the University of Texas at Austin. U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen worked to get the photos displayed at the courthouse.
Runyon was a Kentucky native, born 1881, who became acquainted with the Rio Grande Valley when he gained work selling concessions to railway passengers on the route between Houston and Brownsville. He settled in Brownsville and began documenting the area through his camera lens in 1909.
Knopp said Runyon got his start taking photographs of soldiers stationed at Fort Brown, then selling the photos back to them as postcards that could be mailed to folks back home.
Runyon’s black and while photos captured everything from cityscapes with Brownsville’s horse-and-carriage-lined streets and the aftermath of hurricanes, to military parades and the Onion Festival court.
In 1915, he snapped a photo of Villistas who attacked Matamoros during the Mexican Revolution. Five years later, he photographed President-elect Warren G. Harding during a trip to Brownsville.
Runyon later had a career in politics. He was appointed city manager in 1937 and elected mayor in 1941.
“We hope they do this again,” said Angie Alatorre, who attended a tour with her husband Raul. “You can’t come in here just any time, and I think a lot of people would be interested.”
Anyone interested in attending a future courthouse tour will have to wait. Ballard said it’s expensive to open the building on the weekend, but she hopes to repeat the event next January.