Ramsey County ready to remove two aging landmarks

West building complex
The former West Publishing and Ramsey County Adult Detention Center buildings are scheduled to be torn down starting in June, 2015 to make way for redevelopment along the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minn.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

A significant part of St. Paul's riverfront is headed for a big makeover after two pieces of history are removed.

Ramsey County is poised to tear down a two-block stretch of buildings that date back to 1886: the former headquarters of West Publishing and the old Ramsey County Jail.

After more than 20 years of doubt, debate and false starts on the north bank of the Mississippi River, local officials hope a clean slate will attract builders that were hesitant to take on the challenges of the site. Demolition work and prepping the site for sale is expected to take about a year and cost about $13 million.

When the old jail opened in 1979, it was one of the first in the United States with computer-controlled access, Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom said. A model facility, it had common areas and windows without bars, then-considered the best thinking in incarceration.

But the jail failed the test of time. With just 134 beds, it was too small. It also was based on the principal of "indirect supervision," which kept jailers who controlled the facility remotely safely locked away from inmates.

A still-smashed cell window is testament to downside of that plan.

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In 2003, Ramsey County abandoned the building for a new jail across town. Just before the facility closed, a pair of inmates managed to tear out a stool bolted to the floor and smash it against a window to the outside.

Sheriff's Deputy John Eastham, a jailer at the time, heard the pounding but couldn't catch the inmates because it took too long to get into the cells. But he noticed a day room seat was loose, and a wash bucket out of place.

"I went to pick up the bucket to move it, after everyone had locked in, and I was like, 'this is heavy,'" Eastham recalled. "They had close to 100 feet of sheets tied end to end."

That was just enough to shimmy down to the riverbank below. But the shatter-resistant glass thwarted the escape attempt, one of two Eastham recalls there.

Attempted escape
The second of two known escape attempts from the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center is marked with a shattered window in a cell.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Beside the jail, the wrecking ball also will take down the old West Publishing offices, another landmark.

Before the company moved to Eagan in 1992, it inhabited a sprawling complex cobbled together from six different buildings.

Vance Opperman, the firm's former president, remembers his bewildering introduction to the office back in the 1950s.

"I remember dad brought me down here to show where he worked. I think we took the street car," Opperman said. "We got in the building, and the first thing I remember is that you walk in, and I thought it was a three-story building, and of course you come in on floor 9."

That's because the floor count started at the river, not at street level.

The structure possessed other quirks, among them a half floor after the sixth level that connected two adjacent buildings built in different eras. Opperman said the place's eccentricities proved just too much for the company.

Opperman's and Nasseff
From left, Fane Opperman, John Nasseff and Vance Opperman stand together in the former West Publishing office of Fane and Vance's father, Dwight Opperman.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Former West Publishing executive John Nasseff recalls the firm's departure differently.

"We didn't leave," he said. "We were kicked out."

Nasseff said a city restriction on building along the riverfront prevented the company from expanding to the site where the Science Museum of Minnesota now stands.

After the publishing company abandoned the buildings, Ramsey County government used the complex for offices for more than 20 years.

The county tried for decades to interest someone in the property. In 2007, a developer proposed a $200 million complex with a 32-foot tower, a 200-room hotel and 100 condos on the site. But the housing bubble burst and took the plan with it.

Taking down the cliff-side complex was too big a challenge for developers, Ramsey County Board Chairman Jim McDonough said.

"There are risks here. This is six buildings that were built over a span of time," McDonough said. "It's into the bluff, and at some point, we've just got to figure out how to take that risk away from the developers. We're going to pay for that risk no matter what."