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Requiem For A Building
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Requiem For A Building

To: John B. West
60 W. Third St.
St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Mr. West:

Congratulations on your incorporation of the John B. West Co. in 1872, and more particularly, the publication of the Syllabi No. 1, Volume 1, on October 21, 1876. The promise made by the John B. West Co. in that first edition was to make its publications indispensable to Minnesota attorneys and at all times thoroughly reliable. Your company, known as the West Publishing Co., fulfilled that promise beyond anyone’s imagination. And you could not possibly have imagined the very buildings that housed the business you started.

Those buildings, seven in all and built over the period 1886 to 1979, continued the West presence on Kellogg Boulevard (which West Third Street was renamed) in the heart of downtown St. Paul. Later, the Booth Cold Storage Building was annexed (and thoroughly cleaned!). Ramsey County chose in the early 1980s to build a new adult detention center adjoining the property. It was a strange juxtaposition—those who make the law and those who break the law within sight of each other. Ramsey County then annexed all of the West buildings in 1992 following the company’s move to Eagan, Minn.

There is a baseball field in Iowa built on the theory that “if you build it, [they] will come”; Ramsey County seems to have adopted a somewhat different development philosophy: “If you tear it down, they will come.”

The county has decided to tear down all of the buildings, the last of which was vacated in 2013. This is no small undertaking. The buildings comprise more than 500,000 square feet, in some areas are more than 12 stories tall and are physically anchored into the limestone bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Preliminary estimates for the teardown are currently in the $15 million range. Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega stated at a public dedication that this was the time to prepare the site for development, although there are no pending development plans.

(For those who wish to see a video clip about the building and Ramsey County’s plans, go to video.tpt.org/video/2365504140/.)

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From top: The West Publishing complex during Mississippi river floods; shipping early texts; clerks and their filing cabinets; stitchers individually bound every tome.

Before the bricks come tumbling down, we should pause a moment and reflect on the people who worked there and what they accomplished. The company—until its merger with the Thomson Corp. in 1996—was privately held; all of the owners were employees. West never had a layoff, including the two Great Depressions, 1893 and 1929. Nor did the company take on debt; at the time of its merger with Thomson it remained debt-free. West had many families with multigenerational employees; the 50-Year Club (50 years of continuous employment) usually had 60 or more attendees at its annual party. Both its annual Christmas party and summer picnic were held in St. Paul for more than 110 years. For all of those years, amazing people worked at 50 W. Kellogg Boulevard.

Those people accomplished amazing things. This year we are celebrating 800 years since the signing of the Magna Carta. But many of us would argue that the true genius of the Anglo-American system of jurisprudence is the common law. Without juries, and the precedential effect of court rulings, there would be no common law; the rule of kings or despots would remain. The organization and codification of all legal opinions in the United States was first and best accomplished by West Publishing Co. right there in the middle of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Even more was accomplished with statutory law. The United States Congress faced a serious problem because it had proven impossible to codify all the various annual enactments of Congress into a unified code of all statutes. In other words, one could not always be sure what laws had been enacted, amended, deleted or otherwise changed by subsequent congressional enactments. Finally, in the mid-1920s, with the help of an East Coast legal publisher (coincidentally named the Thompson Co.), West Publishing started its work to codify and annotate all laws of the United States. This was a herculean intellectual task. It is also a task that was way over budget, and in the face of the Great Depression, bankrupted the Thompson Co. The codification of United States law into 50 titles is the standard used today and is the approach to statutory enactments in many other countries. That, too, was accomplished in those buildings at 50 W. Kellogg Boulevard in downtown St. Paul.

Way before social media, the internet, and the World Wide Web (remember Netscape?), West Publishing started to make its highly accurate and reliable legal information available online through a service it called Westlaw (and still calls Westlaw today). This was the first time a comprehensive database of all statutory enactments and all reported cases could be searched in a digital format. The first online terminals (using acoustic coupling) became active in 1976. When the rest of the world caught up to 50 W. Kellogg Boulevard, it did so using search queries phrased in Boolean search language. West then introduced query searches using natural language, and was the first to do so in 1993.

While there are few, if any, people who mourn the loss of the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center, there are many of us who stop to remember the importance of the work that went on for more than 100 years on Kellogg Boulevard at West Publishing Co.

Truly, our legal system would not be what it is today if that company in those buildings had not existed.

Yours for accuracy,

Vance K. Opperman
Proud to be a Westie

Vance K. Opperman (vopperman@keyinvestment.com) is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business. The Opperman family’s involvement with West Publishing began in 1951 and continues via board service today.

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