Washoe County Courthouse

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.

Images

Reno's first courthouse in the 1800s

Reno's first courthouse in the 1800s

Reno's first county courthouse established a civic presence south of the Truckee River, far from the commercial district centered around the transcontinental railroad line. Image Courtesy of Jerry Fenwick View File Details Page

The original Washoe County Courthouse

The original Washoe County Courthouse

A detail from a panorama postcard depicts the original courthouse alongside the Riverside Hotel that was completed in 1906. Image courtesy of Dick Dreiling View File Details Page

Interior of the first Washoe County Courthouse

Interior of the first Washoe County Courthouse

Inside the original courthouse, ca. 1903. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

Design for a new courthouse

Design for a new courthouse

Frederic DeLongchamps' architectural drawings of the courthouse reveal his original preference for the spelling of his last name. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

The new courthouse

The new courthouse

Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

The courthouse as a symbol

The courthouse as a symbol

The courthouse played a central role in stories of Reno's "divorce mill," as the site where divorce-seekers secured their decrees and sometimes kissed one of its columns in gratitude. Lew Hymers cartoon View File Details Page

Evading the news photographer

Evading the news photographer

An unidentified woman inside the courthouse. Photo by Edward Olsen. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

Freedom

Freedom

An unidentified new divorcee leaves the courthouse. Photo by Edward Olsen. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

A celebrity divorce

A celebrity divorce

Arthur Miller leaving the courthouse in 1956. Photo by Edward Olsen. Image courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries View File Details Page

Reno wedding announcement

Reno wedding announcement

A humorous postcard invited newly married couples to inform others of their Reno wedding with a few simple facts. Image courtesy of Mella Harmon View File Details Page

Dual-purpose courthouse

Dual-purpose courthouse

This postcard, circa. 1941, counters Reno's reputation as a divorce capital with some facts about its wedding trade, also centered at the courthouse, where marriage licenses were obtained. Image courtesy of Dick Dreiling View File Details Page

Expansion

Expansion

The courthouse was expanded several times in the 1940s and 1960s, eventually reaching all the way to Sierra Street on the west side. Photo by Alicia Barber View File Details Page

Video

Kissing courthouse columns

View File Details Page

Street Address:

75 Court St, Reno, NV [map]

Cite this Page:

“Washoe County Courthouse,” Reno Historical, accessed May 24, 2017, http://renohistorical.org/items/show/19.
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