Washoe County Courthouse

The center of Washoe County government since 1873

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, its design 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.

Video

Kissing courthouse columns Mella Rothwell Harmon and Neal Cobb discuss some of the legendary actions practiced by those who just received their divorce decrees inside the Washoe County Courthouse in an episode of the documentary series, Exploring Nevada. Source: Exploring Nevada Creator: Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs

Images

The new courthouse
The new courthouse The stately new Washoe County Courthouse, pictured shortly after its completion in 1911. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Date: ca. 1911
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. Source: Jerry Fenwick
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. Source: Dick Dreiling
Interior of the first Washoe County Courthouse
Interior of the first Washoe County Courthouse Inside the original courthouse, ca. 1903. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Date: ca. 1903
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. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries
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. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Creator: Lew Hymers
Evading the news photographer
Evading the news photographer An unidentified woman inside the courthouse. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Creator: Edward Olsen
Freedom
Freedom An unidentified new divorcee leaves the courthouse. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Creator: Edward Olsen
A celebrity divorce
A celebrity divorce Arthur Miller leaving the courthouse in 1956. Source: Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries Creator: Edward Olsen Date: 1956
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. Source: Mella Rothwell Harmon
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. Source: Dick Dreiling Date: ca. 1941
Courthouse expansion
Courthouse expansion The courthouse was expanded several times in the 1940s and 1960s, eventually reaching all the way to Sierra Street on the west side. Creator: Alicia Barber

Location

75 Court St, Reno, NV

Metadata

Mella Rothwell Harmon, “Washoe County Courthouse,” Reno Historical, accessed June 14, 2024, https://renohistorical.org/items/show/19.