Early Omaha: Gateway to the West
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Despite early Omaha’s reputation as “rough and ready” cow town, law and order have always maintained a tangible presence.
On March 18, 1857 the city entered into a contract to build a jail and courthouse in an area bounded by 15th, 16th, Douglas and Farnam streets known as Washington Square.
Construction plans were drawn by E.C. Barker. It stipulated that the building must include, “One room suitable for a council room and mayor’s court room, one for a city recorder’s office and two for watch houses, or for such other purposes as the council may direct, said rooms to be completed by the 1st of January, 1858.” Final plans by Barker showed a structure of stone and brick, 40 x 70 feet wide and 2 stories high. The total cost was $40, 460 (Wakeley, p. 131-32). On January 4, 1858 , city officials were notified that the rooms specified in the contract were ready for occupancy.
To make ends meet, rooms in the courthouse were rented out. In November 1861, the Presbyterian Society was given permission to hold services in the court for an annual fee of $50.00. Rooms were rented for public assemblies at $10.00 per night. Meetings could be held at the courthouse for a $2.00 fee (Wakeley, ibid).
In the above image looking east on Farnam Street the Court House is the large building on the north side of Farnam between 15th & 16th. It is surrounded by a white fence. It would be torn down about 1884-5 and replaced by the W. A. Paxton Block. The First Congregational Church sits across the street west on 16th Street between Farnam & Douglas.
Douglas County Commissioners realized as early as 1869 that the original facility was too small. It was not until 1878 that an acceptable site was available. The site was the block between 17th, 18th , Farnam and Harney streets. In 1879, a jail was built on the southwest corner of this lot for $35,000.
The contract to build the new courthouse was awarded to John F. Coots from Detroit for $198,616 (Wakeley, p. 133). Changes in the plans brought the final total to $204,787. The cornerstone was laid on October 25, 1882. The finished structure was formally received by the city on May 28, 1885.
The structure was described as the “handsomest public building in Omaha” (Standard Blue, p. 28). It was located on the crest of Farnam hill approximately 150 feet above the Missouri River. The courthouse grounds covered an area of 264 x 284 feet. The building itself was 112 x 130 feet wide and 140 feet high. The outer walls were of sandstone from Berea, Ohio, and the inner walls were brick. The dome was iron and sheet metal sanded and painted to resemble stone. It was crowned by a 10-foot statue of Justice. The halls were tiled in marble and the staircases were of elaborately worked iron. The courthouse was ‘fireproofed’ throughout.
City fathers realized that although they had a fine courthouse, Omaha was growing so fast that within 25 years a new one would be needed. Consequently on March 1, 1908, county commissioners voted to issue bonds in the amount of $1 million dollars.
In July of 1908, John Latenser was hired to design the building. Architectural plans were completed in 1909 and the Columbus, Indiana, firm of Caldwell & Drake were hired to build the new courthouse.
The present structure was constructed south of the old courthouse. In this image, looking to the southwest from 17th & Farnam, you can see part of the new structure being built behind the old. The new building is a perfect blend of form and function. The outside walls are of Bedford stone with little ornamentation. The courthouse is 6 stories high on the Harney street side and 5 on the Farnam street side. A lawn with a semi-circular walk fronts the building. Interior halls have mosaic floors and marble wainscotings. Main, 2nd and 3rd floors house county offices, and the 4th floor courtrooms. The top floor holds the county jail. Marble stairs or 4 elevators provide access to all levels. Offices are finished in hardwoods and fireproof vaults preserve county records.
The Douglas County Courthouse opened October 1, 1912, and remains largely unchanged and in use to the present day.
Text written by Lynn Sullivan, October 2003
Standard Blue Presents Buildings of the 80’s in Omaha. Standard Blue: Omaha, 1976. Page 28.
Wakeley, Arthur. Omaha: the Gate City, Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1917. Pages 131-132.