Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 31, 2018

Inyo County Courthouse; Emblem of A Faded Era

Independence, California is the seat of Inyo County. It’s located in the Owens Valley, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. Independence straddles the only road that traverses the valley — four busy lanes of north-south U.S. Route 395. With fewer than 700 residents and no traffic lights or stop signs, Independence doesn’t have much to slow travelers headed for Death Valley, Yosemite National Park or the ski resort of Mammoth Mountain. I didn’t even bother to photograph the town itself, other than what’s visible in a picture of The Counselor intent on shooting photos of an old hotel across the highway.

Independence Brad Nixon 1117 680

Local businesses, shops and a post office line the highway, a few blocks of houses behind them, and that’s Independence. You can see the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the distance, above. The valley is dramatically beautiful. The Inyo and White Mountain ranges fill the eastern horizon, with the Sierras towering a few miles to the west.

Sierra view Brad Nixon 1316 680

Independence is uncharacteristically small for a county seat, classified only as a “census designated place,” not a city or town. But sparsely populated Inyo County has only about 18,000 residents in all. Its relatively central location makes Independence as reasonable a place as any.

There are a few historical points of interest in and around Independence, including the site of the former U.S. Army Fort Independence, active from 1862 to 1877. There’s a small museum, and the home of southwestern American nature writer, Mary Austin (1868-1934).


In contrast, there’s the Inyo County courthouse. It faces Route 395, and is immediately to the right of The Counselor in the photo above, fronted by that green lawn.

Inyo courthouse Brad Nixon 1114 680

The grandiose Classical Revival style building was built in 1921. The architect was San Francisco-based William H. Weeks. Weeks was 57 in 1921, well-respected, and had designed more than a thousand buildings by the time he was engaged for this one.

Inyo courthouse Brad Nixon 1126 680

As I prepared for a trip up Route 395, I learned we’d pass the most impressive structure in the entire valley, and that Weeks was the architect. I know some of his work, and so do longtime readers of this blog. He designed 21 Carnegie Libraries, including the fanciful Richardsonian Romanesque one in San Luis Obispo that I wrote about at this link.

SLO Carnegie Brad Nixon IMG_3554

The Tale (in Brief)

As you can guess, there’s a reason Inyo County built a courthouse as impressive as ones in much larger, more prosperous communities. Early in the 20th century, the Owens Valley was posed for enormous growth and development. There was mining in the mountains, immigrants from across the world were streaming into California. The valley promised to become an important agricultural center. Although not particularly wide, it’s relatively flat, extends seventy-five miles north and south, and has conditions favorable to a number of crops that can be raised with irrigation. Most importantly, there was water: a significant supply of water flowed out of the Sierras through scores of rivers and streams into the Owens River.

The river fed Owens Lake, which was approximately 12 miles long and 8 miles wide at a depth of 20 to 50 feet. Water!

The End Had Arrived

By the time the county built its new courthouse, the valley’s prospects were already poised to collapse, although the outcome wasn’t yet obvious. The City of Los Angeles acquired a large portion of the land and its water rights starting in 1913, and was diverting the river and some tributaries into aqueducts to supply the growing metropolis.

Here’s how it’s stated in the application for National Historic Register status for the courthouse:

“This elaborately designed building represents the peak of local autonomy in the Owens Valley, before the City of Los Angeles purchased the majority of land in the valley, including most of the land within the county seat. Water development policies adopted by the City of Los Angeles after 1924 led ultimately to the destruction of irrigated agriculture, and the virtual depopulation of the Owens Valley.”1

I won’t belabor the history of water use in southern California. Suffice it to say that today Owens Lake is mostly a dry expanse of salty flatland, and the huge farms never materialized.

One grand structure stands as testament to a day when aspirations were different.

Inyo courthouse Brad Nixon 1115 680

The Inyo County courthouse is at 168 N. Edwards St., Independence, California.

High resolution versions of most photographs in this post, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018. NRHP quotation:Judy Triem and Mitch Stone (July 7, 1997). “National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Inyo County Courthouse”


  1. It’s always interesting to me why some towns develop continuously and others do not.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice pictures. That Carnegie Library also has interesting architecture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m pleased you enjoyed them. I like the SLO library particularly because one of my elementary school buildings in Ohio was an 1880s Richardsonian Romanesque in red brick.


  3. Apparently even fields of dreams can’t survive without being watered.

    I couldn’t help noting that imagining a large, Romanesque dome behind the columns of the courthouse would make it look remarkably like the Methodist church I attended as a kid. Now that I think about it, our bank had similar columns (I just counted ten or eleven in a vintage photo) and so did the courthouse. Let’s see: courthouse, bank, and church. That’s an interesting trinity that says something about life in those earlier days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well observed. Maybe a reason for the widespread popularity of classic revivalism and its soulmates was not so much that it distinguished a structure as placed it within a large class of imposing, stolid, “reliable” institutions. If your bank looks like St. Peter’s Basilica, you KNOW you can trust them!
      Okay, anecdote time. In the early days of computer graphics in the mid ’80s, we did slides for a sales presentation with the now-ubiquitous primitive icons representing money (dollar sign), transportation (car), banks (pillared building), etc. This was scarily low-res and crude, of course. The slides would be used in Europe as well as the U.S. and one of the Europeans told us our icon for a bank — rectangular block with pillars — would be viewed over there as a church, and made us replace it.

      Liked by 1 person

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