A lot was going on in Omaha a century ago — not just the opening of the striking Douglas County Courthouse.
The 19-story Woodmen of the World headquarters, the tallest building between Chicago and the West Coast, was dedicated in October 1912, with a parade and crowds that left downtown streets impassable.
Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt campaigned for president in Omaha. A front-page World-Herald headline told of the Ak-Sar-Ben board of governors' plan to build a horse-racing track.
Across the street from the new limestone Courthouse, the ornate City Hall was abuzz with activity. So was the castle-like U.S. Post Office around the corner.
One by one, they met their demise: Roosevelt (1919) Wilson (1924), City Hall (1966), the Post Office (1966), the Woodmen building (1977) and the race track (final season 1995, demolition 2005).
But the Courthouse still stands at 17th and Farnam Streets, and county officials will mark its centennial with a day of events on Oct. 20.
“People should come and see the beautiful Courthouse,” said County Commissioner Pam Tusa. “We have to honor what's been done in the past, especially the vision of 100 years ago.”
Those visionaries include architect John Latenser Sr., who designed the Courthouse as well as Omaha Central High School and Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
Across America, courthouses traditionally have been places where citizens went to transact business with government offices — the county clerk, assessor, treasurer, register of deeds, election commissioner and others.
Today, the Douglas County Courthouse is almost strictly that — a courthouse. As the number of courts expanded over the years, county offices moved to other locations.
The result is that many citizens no longer have reason to visit — for the most part, it's only those who go to court.
That's all the more reason, Tusa said, for people to tour the building on Oct. 20, a Saturday. They can see the circular atrium and rotunda, the floor mosaics, the marble and the murals, and ponder the history within those walls.
One memorable episode actually occurred just outside the walls.
In June 1978, a month after they were convicted of first-degree murder, Peter Hochstein and C. Michael Anderson escaped from a maximum-security cell on the sixth floor by using a smuggled hacksaw and a rope fashioned from torn bedsheets.
They stole a car and a twin-engine plane, flew to North Dakota and headed for Canada — but walked the wrong way along the Red River, which flows north, not south like most rivers in the region.
They reversed direction but were captured just south of the Canadian border. They were sentenced to death, but in 2001 the Nebraska Supreme Court changed it to life in prison, where they remain.
Another well-documented event has been called Omaha's darkest day.
On Sept. 28, 1919, rioters set fire to the Courthouse, pulled William Brown from jail and lynched him on the south side of the building before riddling his body with bullets.
Brown, who was African-American, had been arrested two days earlier for allegedly assaulting a white girl, though many believe he was innocent.
The mob also tried to hang the mayor, Ed Smith, but others cut him down. Harvey Newbranch of The World-Herald abhorred that night's actions in an editorial, “Law and the Jungle,” which won a Pulitzer Prize.
Bullets that were fired inside the Courthouse during the rioting left scars that, on close inspection, can be seen today.
Thousands of other dramas, some public and some mostly private, have taken place at the Courthouse over the past 100 years — from high-profile criminal trials to angry divorce hearings to clever political maneuvering.
Tusa and Jerry Leahy, the county's public property director (and cousin of the late Gene Leahy, Omaha mayor 1969-73), are co-chairmen for the 100-year Courthouse celebration. Sponsors are the County Board and the Omaha Bar Association.
Festivities start at 9 a.m. with the arrival of motorcyclists, the VFW 2503 Riders, followed at 9:30 by a flag-raising, national anthem and gun salute.
The opening ceremony is at 10 a.m., followed at 10:30 a.m. by speakers in Courtroom 6 recounting “historic trials, larger-than-life lawyers and judges, and anecdotes from years past.”
A band, a magician, clowns, food vendors, the unveiling of a new county seal and a procession of Model A and Model T cars will round out the event, with a closing ceremony at 1:30 p.m.
Over the years, the building's interior has undergone changes. The sixth-floor jail was removed, and a correction center was built a few blocks to the south.
In March 1975, local officials opened the City-County Building, formally called the Omaha-Douglas Civic Center, just to the west of the Courthouse. It houses various city and county offices, including those of the mayor, the City Council and the County Board.
A 2006 study concluded that the Courthouse lacked adequate space and should be replaced, and that shackled prisoners in orange jumpsuits should not share the same hallways as victims and the public.
But the cost estimate for a replacement was $169 million, and the County Board didn't agree to adopt such a plan.
Tusa said visitors will notice that the murals atop the rotunda — depicting scenes of American Indians, pioneers and the harvest — have flaked and bubbled and are in need of repair, though money hasn't been budgeted for that. Skylights above the murals that occasionally let water in, she said, have been repaired.
From 1909 to 1912, the Courthouse was built behind the previous courthouse, which remained open for business until the new one was ready. The old one sat on a hill, which was removed along with the old building.
Carved into the front of today's century-old Courthouse are the Roman numerals MCMX — for 1910. But offices opened on Oct. 1, 1912, and that is the centennial that the county is celebrating.
“We need to honor and celebrate the 100 years of our Courthouse,” Tusa said. “It's still standing and still beautiful.”
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