Richard Moreno: Reno’s past lives within the Washoe County Courthouse
September 21, 2017
Few places are as identified with Reno as the Washoe County Courthouse. The building also has a long history that intersects with a number of important figures and times in the city's development.
Shortly after the establishment of Reno in 1868 by the Central Pacific Railroad, city residents began lobbying to move the county seat from Washoe City (at the north end of Washoe Valley) to Reno.
In 1871, the effort succeeded and with the move came the need for a new courthouse in Reno. The decision of where to locate the building, however, proved contentious.
County commissioners selected a one-acre site south of the Truckee River that Myron Lake, a prominent and wealthy local businessman who was largely responsible for the founding of Reno, agreed to deed to the county at no cost (he also promised $1,500 in cash and water rights to irrigate the property).
The result was a courthouse that looked like what most people imagined a courthouse should look like, which made it an ideal image during Reno’s heyday as the Divorce Capital of the World.
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Officials of the railroad, however, wanted the courthouse on their land north of the river so it would be closer to the rail line.
The railroad sued but the county prevailed and in April 1872 work began on a two-story brick structure on the corner of South Virginia Street and Court Street. Construction was completed in January 1873.
The building boasted 14-foot ceilings and small, bee-hive-shaped, zinc-covered dome. The first floor contained county offices and an eight-cell jail while courtrooms and judge's chambers were on the upper floor.
The structure served the county until just after the start of the 20th century, when county officials realized it had grown too small for the county's needs. In 1909, the county conducted a design competition to create "a new, up-to-date image" for the courthouse and selected the work of Frederic J. DeLongchamps, a 27-year-old architect who had been gaining a reputation for creating elegant, classical buildings.
DeLongchamps, who would go on to design iconic government buildings, particularly courthouses, throughout Nevada, kept the core of the original building in his design — it's still there, even today, beneath several renovations.
But the exterior design created by DeLongchamps incorporated a Classical Revival look with a Beaux Arts influence. Atop the structure, he placed a large copper dome. Visitors entered the building through giant concrete columns and entered a vestibule that boasted a large stained glass ceiling (the inside of the dome) and an impressive stairway leading to the second floor.
The result was a courthouse that looked like what most people imagined a courthouse should look like, which made it an ideal image during Reno's heyday as the Divorce Capital of the World. From the post-World War I period to the mid-1950s, Reno gained international notoriety as one of the country's easiest places to obtain a divorce (Nevada's loosening of its divorce laws in 1931 really helped).
The cover of the June 21, 1937 Life Magazine, in fact, depicted a young woman kissing one of the courthouse columns and inside the publication printed a multi-page story spotlighting the city's bustling divorce trade.
According to the story, "One out of every six U.S. marriages ends in divorce. Mecca of the disillusioned June Bride is Reno, Nev., which gets the richest slice of the nation's divorce business."
The story goes on to describe the process of obtaining a Reno divorce, which required six-week residency, followed by a visit to the Washoe County Courthouse to file for divorce.
"A popular Reno myth has it that upon receiving her decree a divorcee rushes out, embraces and kisses the Washoe County Courthouse pillar, dashes on 200 feet to the Truckee River, throws in her wedding ring," Life noted before wryly adding, "As every Reno citizen knows, she does no such thing."
Since that period, however, the courthouse has maintained a considerably lower profile.
A good source of information about the Washoe County Courthouse is Ron James' excellent book, "Temples of Justice: County Courthouses of Nevada," published by the University of Nevada Press.