This courthouse was the third for Washoe County, which was established in 1861 as one of Nevada territory’s original nine counties. In 1871, Myron C. Lake donated an acre of his land for Reno’s first courthouse, as the ambitious young town wrested the county seat from Washoe City, some 20 miles to the south. Built of red brick in 1871-1873, that earlier structure still stands as an internal component of the building seen today.
In 1909, architect Frederic DeLongchamps won the design competition for the new courthouse, marking the first solo commission of his career. Clad in stone, the building is Classical Revival with a Beaux Arts influence, featuring decorative elements in terra cotta. A copper dome with ribs ending in fanciful brackets crowns the roof. Underneath the dome, a massive stained glass installation soars above the original entrance and a grand stairway to the second floor.
Due to Nevada’s liberal divorce laws, the courthouse, completed in 1911, quickly became a symbolic monument for those wishing to end their marriages in a timely fashion. In 1921, writer Lillyan Stratton said of its entrance, “These steps might truly be called the ‘great divide,’ as many thousands have tripped up united and returned divided."
During the 1930s, when a decree could be gained in just six weeks, nearly 33,000 divorces were granted in these courtrooms. A photograph staged by famed photographer Alfred Eisenstadt of a young woman kissing one of the courthouse columns in gratitude for her newfound freedom appeared on the front cover of the June 21, 1937, edition of Life magazine. Such images became iconic through published photos and references in numerous articles, books, and Hollywood films.
The County Clerk's Office in the courthouse was also where marriage licenses were purchased. Lacking neighboring California’s required three-day waiting period between marriage license and ceremony, Nevada's unrestricted policies opened the door to an active wedding trade.
Additions designed by Frederic DeLongchamps were made to the courthouse in 1946, 1949 and 1963. An extensive restoration was completed in the early 2000s with assistance from National Park Service Historic Preservation Fund grants and the nonprofit Washoe County Court House Historical and Preservation Society. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Nevada State Register of Historic Places, and the Reno Register of Historic Places.