Friday, April 18, 2014
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Three buildings hit century mark

Panels of light green glass surround the center of the dome, descending into ever-darkening shades of green until they evolve into a deep blue.


Floral designs built into some of the panels convey a sense of joyous energy into the former Cameron County Courthouse at 1150 E. Madison. The Classical Revival Style structure built by architect Atlee B. Ayres celebrates its 100th birthday this year, along with the old city jail at 1201 E. Van Buren. Sacred Heart Catholic Church at 600 E. Elizabeth will also be celebrating its centennial; the groundbreaking ceremony for the church took place in 1912 and the completed structure was dedicated the following year.


History Professor Emeritus Tony Knopp said that, although the county already had a courthouse and city jail, growth made new facilities necessary.


"They decided to build, probably due to the affluence coming from the connection of the railroad and the agriculture boom," he said. "They got money, and so they built that new courthouse in 1912 and they built a jail a couple of blocks up at the same time."


The former Cameron County Courthouse is known more popularly as the Dancy Building after Oscar Dancy who served as county judge for decades. A Texas Historical Commission marker describes the building as having "brick exterior features, banded ground floor courses, Corinthian columns and pilasters, a dome and a classical parapet with terra cotta trim."


The structure’s somber dark brown brick maintains a commanding presence on the large lawn where it resides. Inside, white marble walls and light green tile extends the structure’s nostalgic elegance. Signs mark doors as entrances to such offices as that of "County Treasurer," "Planning Development and Management" and "Commissioner Pct. 2."


"It is fine work," Knopp said. "Now the other thing that I think is quite interesting is that it’s got four entrances, and commonly it’s believed that that’s because this was pre-air conditioning, and the more entrances and windows you could have the better off you were. So this would accentuate the ability of air to move through in four different directions."


The 1912 city jail a few blocks away, ironically, now serves as office space for two law firms: Colvin, Chaney, Saenz and Rodriguez; Martinez, Barrera and Martinez. However, the structure still maintains the atmosphere of its original use. Upon entrance through the front door, visitors are immediately confronted by an intimidating set of iron bars. The door to a restroom is made of iron bars, and a rather imposing thick door with a tiny window leads to an office.


Like the Dancy Building, this structure was also built by Ayres in the Classical Revival Style, according to a Texas Historical Commission marker. Ayres and his son and business partner Robert added to the building in 1929.


Javier Garza, Brownsville-21 project coordinator, said there was one hanging at the jail soon after its construction. According to the Brownsville Historical Association’s website, Brownsville-21 is multifaceted project that includes walking tours, photomurals and information kiosks that serve to preserve the history of the city.


"There were two men that were hung, that were accused of murder," Garza said. "There seemed to be a lot of attention paid to it, because a lot of people actually believed they were innocent, that they were wrongly accused."


Parishioners at Sacred Heart Catholic Church felt a bit wronged back in 1967 when the diocese wanted to close the church. The structure sits at the corner of Elizabeth and Sixth streets where it has served loyal parishioners for decades. The Gothic Revival Church was designed by Frederick B. Gaenslen and features columns at three pointed arches; the tops of the columns have floral designs, says the Brownsville Heritage Trail marker. The entrance is framed on each side by tall bell towers that bear stained-glass windows.


Lita Ortiz, a long-time parishioner, said the diocese had several reasons for wanting to close the church, but the main reason was to sell the property and divide the money among other churches.


However, parishioners fought so hard for their beloved church that the diocese kept it open.


"It closed for awhile, but we were persistent, and you know that you can fight city hall once in awhile," Ortiz said. "We’re a nice congregation, and it’s a beautiful church, we have the most magnificent windows. Personally we feel that the church is our home. And one of the nice features about it, yes, we have new people that come and worship with us, but we still have members that are third and fourth generation who are still going to church there, one generation after another."


The church is now a chapel of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral instead of a parish. Marilyn Baca, office manager and bookkeeper, said only one Mass is held per week, on Sunday. Masses are also held on all the holy days, plus Christmas and New Year’s Day. The church is also used for weddings.

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