Bob Casey Federal Courthouse and Its New Deal Murals

Located at 515 Rusk Street in downtown Houston, the Bob Casey Federal Courthouse was named after U.S. Representative Robert R. Casey. The United States District Court for Southern Texas resides in the Casey building, and it serves a broad region of southeastern Texas, including the cities of Corpus Christi, Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, Victoria, Houston, and Galveston.

In recent times, the Casey building has served as home to six beautiful murals that were re-discovered in the basement of the Houston Parcel Post Building in 1976. The story of the paintings, their disappearance, and re-discovery offers a revealing look into the history and politics of twentieth century Houston.

The murals’ tale began in the mid-1930s, when Dallas artists Jerry Bywaters and Alexandre Hogue submitted an unsuccessful bid to paint the Dallas Post Office Terminal as part of an ongoing New Deal public works project administered by the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture. This program supported national artists who decorated more than 65 post offices in Texas with nearly 100 murals depicting scenes of local history, culture, and industry. Although Bywaters and Hogue were turned down for the Dallas project, they were later awarded a similar job painting the Houston Parcel Post Building.

Williamson Gerald (Jerry) Bywaters was born in Paris, Texas, on May 21, 1906, and he studied art at the New York Art Students League. Bywaters specialized in landscapes, portraits, lithograph prints, and murals. According to Francine Carraro, Bywaters' style was indicative of a larger national movement in the 1930s, called the "American Scene," which inspired local artists to create works that honored their community's heritage.

Alexandre Hogue was born in Memphis, Missouri, on February 22, 1898, and he moved with his family to Denton, Texas, in the early twentieth century. Hogue attended Bryan Street High School in Dallas and graduated in 1918. He then traveled to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for one year before returning to Texas, where he worked as an illustrator for the Dallas Morning News. As an artist, Hogue became known for his abstract landscape paintings and murals.

When Bywaters and Hogue joined the Dallas Nine -- a group of prominent painters and sculptors in the early 1930s -- they discovered a mutual love and respect for the culture of East Texas. After receiving their Houston commission from the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, Hogue and Bywaters researched the history of the city’s shipping industry for two years before painting six murals on the subject. On July 6, 1941, Bywaters and Hogue's murals were presented to the Houston Parcel Post Building during a highly publicized ceremony. At six feet by eighteen feet, each of the massive murals encompassed an entire wall of the Parcel Post building.

The Bywaters and Hogue murals explored the day-to-day workings of the Houston Ship Channel. For example, Hogue’s “The Diana Docking" featured a colorful tableau showing a riverboat docking on the Buffalo Bayou. In the painting, a group of passengers wait to board, while African American men prepare to load goods onto the ship; a statue of a Native American man stands behind the group, smoking a long pipe. According to historians Nancy Young, William Pederson, and Byron Daynes, another of Hogue’s painting, "Houston Ship Channel--Early History," showcases early river boat traffic, as well as efforts to "survey, clear, dredge, and build the Houston canal.” Likewise, Bywaters’ murals, "Loading Cotton" and "Loading Oil," depict strong dock workers loading bales of cotton and oil onto shipping vessels in the Houston Ship Channel.

Taken together, Hogue and Bywaters' murals highlight the determination and dignity of everyday people who worked in Houston’s shipping industry. Yet, sometime in the 1950s, the murals were removed from the Parcel Post Building. The images, which had once represented the hope and determination of the American working-class, became symbols of organized labor and socialism during the Cold War hysteria that swept through Houston during the 1950s and 1960s. Luckily, the paintings were re-discovered and moved to the Casey building before Bywaters passed away in 1989 and Hogue died in 1994. In fact, the paintings were restored in 2006 so that future generations could enjoy them and the story they tell.

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