These five panels tell the stories of Alameda County's five courthouses.Alameda County's 1st Courthouse
Alvarado · 1853-1855
Alameda County's first courthouse was a converted loft space above a general store in the frontier town of Alvarado, near where Alameda Creek flowed into San Francisco Bay.
The building, demolished many years ago, was located on what is now the northwest corner of Union City Boulevard and Smith Street in Union City. Henry Clay Smith, a State Assemblyman from Washington Township and a substantial landowner in that area, introduced a bill creating Alameda County, which was approved by the state legislature, then meeting in Benicia, and signed by Governor John Bigler on March 25, 1852. The loft space where the county government first met, when the Court of Sessions convened on June 6, 1853, was, in fact, located above the Smith and Church Store in a building owned by Smith, and the county government agreed to pay him $200 annual rent for use of the space.
The county seat was in Alvarado for less than three years. Dissatisfaction arose over the frequent winter floods and summer dust and mosquitos (sic) in marshy Alvarado. Also, the county's population, which originally centered around Alvarado, was shifting northward. On December 5, 1854 county voters were given a choice of a county seat, and 782 voted for San Leandro, 614 for Alvarado, 232 for Alameda, 220 for San Lorenzo, 18 for Oakland, and 15 for Haywards (as it was then known). San Leandro won the run-off election by a margin of 1,301 to 1.067 over Alvarado. County official relocated there, but the state Supreme Court ruled in August, 1855, that only the state legislature could change the location of the county seat and so it returned to Alvarado. Agitation continued, however, for a permanent move to San Leandro, and in February, 1856, the state legislature named that town as the new county seat.
Alameda County's 2nd Courthouse
San Leandro · 1855-1873
The Estudillo family, holders of the original Mexican land grant, was instrumental in bringing the county seat to the town of San Leandro.
They donated four city blocks of their land for public purposes, around which the new town of San Leandro arose. A temporary courthouse had been built in 1855, but following the state legislature's final vote in favor of that site, work began on a permanent structure. Alameda County's second courthouse opened in 1857 at a cost of $30,000. Pedimented, with imposing Ionic columns flanking the entry, it was built entirely of bricks made from clay extracted to create the courthouse basement. The first floor was devoted to offices - one room each for the Clerk, Recorder, Treasurer, Assessor, and Sheriff. - and the upper floor held the one court-room and two jury rooms. The basement contained the county jail, consisting of six cells and two guard rooms.
The Greek Revival building was praised as "unsurpassed by any county in the state... for comfort, convenience, elegance, and strength," but worries arose about its ability to survive a major earthquake. Indeed, it was substantially destroyed by the historic earthquake of October 21, 1868. The county offices and courts moved temporarily to a nearby Methodist Church, and the Supervisors ordered repairs to the courthouse, including iron cells for the subterranean jail and a new frame building over it, as well as a separate fireproof building for the Recorder's office. The new facilities were ready by January, 1869, and served the county until June, 1873. The courthouse building served as a Catholic school from 1880 until its demolition in 1926. Its site, on the southwest corner of the intersection of Clarke and Davis streets, is currently occupied by St. Leander's School.
Alameda County's 3rd Courthouse
East Oakland · 1873-1875
A powerful contingent of Oakland citizens has always wanted to see the county seat located in their city.
April, 1853, one month after the creation of Alameda County, State Assemblyman Horace W. Carpentier (later Oakland's first mayor) introduced a bill changing the county seat from Alvarado to Oakland. It was narrowly defeated by a vote of 19 to 17. The partisans of Oakland had to wait another twenty years for a new courthouse, and even then it was built in East Oakland, not downtown where they had intended.
By 1870 Oakland had over 10,000 people and was the new terminus of the transcontinental railroad. It was clearly the center of public life in the county, but attempts to relocate the county seat there were met by stiff opposition from representatives of San Leandro and other towns to the south and east. As a compromise, some suggested Brooklyn, a smaller community located between Oakland and San Leandro. However, Brooklyn was annexed to Oakland in November, 1872, and in another popular vote on the location of the county seat, in April, 1873, voters cast 2,254 votes for Oakland and 1,189 votes for San Leandro. Oakland city officials offered temporary quarters in the new City Hall and the donation of Washington and Franklin plazas on Broadway as the future permanent site of county government.
Instead, the County Board of Supervisors accepted the offer of a parcel on East 14th Street, (now International Boulevard) in the Brooklyn neighborhood and $10,000 to build a courthouse there. They authorized the construction of a rather plain frame building costing $18,000. It opened in June of 1873 and, like its predecessor in San Leandro, had offices for county officials on the first floor and one courtroom on the upper floor. This unassuming building, which served as the county courthouse for only two years, still stands at the northeast corner of International Boulevard and 20th Avenue.
Alameda County's 4th Courthouse
Oakland · 1875-1936
County officials occupied the courthouse in East Oakland only briefly before planning began for much larger and grander facilities in downtown Oakland.
In 1874 the state legislature approved the transfer of two Oakland plazas, located on opposite sides of Broadway between 4th and 5th streets, and the issuance of $200,000 in bonds for construction of new county offices. Washington Plaza, on the west side of Broadway, was chosen as the site for the new courthouse, while Franklin Plaza, across the street, was selected for the Hall of Records.
Alameda county's fourth courthouse, which opened in June, 1897, was as grand as its predecessor was plain. It was designed by the prominent architects and brothers, John J. and Thomas D. Newsom (who also designed Oakland's fourth City Hall in 1878). Built in the Second Empire style, the courthouse featured a tall domed central tower and four miniature corner towers with mansard-like roofs and circular dormer windows. Wooden statures of Liberty and Justice, sculpted by Oakland native Charles Keitell, perched over the Broadway fa?ade. With its Parisian grandeur, the new courthouse was a powerful symbol of the importance and wealth of what was then California's fourth most populous county.
Within fifty years, however, this appraisal of the courthouse would change. By the 1920s - in an era long before the rise of the modern historic preservation movement - the courthouse on Broadway, and the equally grand Hall of Records which faced it, were viewed as outdated and embarrassing. Noting the shift of Oakland business away from lower Broadway, one Oakland journal stated in 1923 that "the center of activities is now many miles away from the old courthouse district and... the buildings are a positive disgrace to the community." Calling for voters to support a bond to fund completely new county buildings in 1924, the same paper editorialized that the building "must now be swept aside..." While that bond measure failed, it would not be long before those in favor of a new county courthouse would succeed in their efforts.
Alameda County's 5th Courthouse
Oakland · 1936-Present
In 1933 the Oakland Tribune called for voters to support a new bond measure to replace the "antiquated and condemned" county buildings with a modern courthouse and administrative building.
The measure failed that year, but carried in April, 1934. Totaling $1.7 million, the bond was supplemented by $462,000 in Public Works Administration (PWA) funds to allow for the construction of the 235,000 square foot courthouse that now stands before you.
Designed by a team of locally prominent architects - William Corlett, Henry Minton, James Plachek, William Schirmer, and Carl Werner - the courthouse was dedicated on September 6, 1936, following twenty months of construction. The steel frame and reinforced concrete building features exterior surfaces of California granite and terra cotta trim. The main fa?ade of the building overlooking Lake Merritt, opens to a spacious lobby whose stairway is flanked by fifteen-foot-high marble mosaic murals depicting county history and created by artist Marian Simpson of Berkeley and sculptor Gaetano Duccini of San Francisco. The first and second floors were designed to hold public offices, courtrooms occupy the third through the eighth floors, and the District Attorney's office occupies the entire ninth floor. A jail with space for over 100 detainees occupies the tenth and eleventh floors, while an observation cupola flanked with eagles crowns the building 200 feet above the base.
Damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, this outstanding example of "PWA Moderne" architecture was completely rehabilitated and continues to actively serve the citizens of Alameda County.
Dedicated in 2003 to honor Alameda County's Sesquicentennial