Behind a well-manicured lawn and mature trees, the David C Cook building on North Grove Avenue is a stately presence in its northeast-side Elgin historic neighborhood.
Nearly a block long with a brick facade and columned entrance, the 119-year-old building looks more like a museum than vacant office and little-used warehouse space -- from the outside.
To passersby, it may even look like a landmark.
The Elgin Heritage Commission said the property meets nine of the 11 historical criteria for that designation and recommended the city council vote to bestow that status. The issue will go before the council at its Nov. 4 meeting.
If council members vote to landmark the building, it will be the first time they've done so against a property owner's wishes.
David C Cook CEO Cris Doornbos understands why people would be sentimental about the neoclassical office building. He is, too. But he also knows what's inside that the public doesn't get to see.
Falling ceilings. Moldy walls. Dangling ducts and wires. An office building that hasn't been occupied in more than 25 years and "is a potential health and safety issue for my workers, and if it goes on, it's potentially a health and safety issue for the neighborhood," he said.
Doornbos wouldn't say what the company will do with the property if it isn't landmarked, reiterating consistently that it wants to keep its options open.
"In 15 years, we've had numerous conversations with developers about how they would go about taking a property like this and repurpose it, and we cannot find a single developer with an idea that is commercially viable that the neighborhood association would accept," he said. "I still think there are possibilities, but the one thing that would take a lot of the options away is to landmark it."
The Northeast Neighborhood Association is a group of about 2,000 households in the historic district, where the Cook property is located. The association's president, Eric Larson, said he sympathizes with the company's situation.
"I honestly understand DC Cook's perspective. But we don't agree with it," Larson said. "They have worked with us fairly to give us a decent window of opportunity to bring in perspective developers, but the problems aren't solved yet so that's a big part of the motivation (to landmark)."
Larson said an immediate reason to grant landmark status "is to do anything we can to save the building from being torn down, or to delay that so that there's a chance to come up with some plan that might actually save the building in a way that is paid for."
Things heated up early last year when the company said it wanted to tear down the office building. "I think when we started talking demolition is when I think they started talking preservation," Doornbos said.
Impassioned neighbors turned to the city council. Some council members said the building should be preserved because it is a valuable part of the city's history; others said they don't want to force landmark designation on a private property owner.
Council members Corey Dixon, Baldemar Lopez, Tish Powell, Carol Rauschenberger and John Steffen, and Mayor David Kaptain voted "yes." Council members Toby Shaw, Terry Gavin and Rose Martinez voted "no."
The issue then went to the Elgin Heritage Commission. After an expert testified the complex -- office building and adjacent warehouse space -- met most of the city's landmark criteria, the commission voted 11-0 this month to recommend that status.
Doornbos, who came to the nonprofit Christian publishing company as CEO in 2005, said the property has been an issue for him since he started. While the company headquarters relocated to Colorado in the mid-1990s and much of the warehouse space is unused, it still serves as a distribution site.
The situation became more urgent two years ago with a water main break in the vacant front office building, followed by a large flood.
"There's mold in that building," Doornbos said. "It's not life threatening, but it could be soon."
The front office building that faces Grove is 24,000 square feet and represents about 10% of the overall square footage on the 8-acre site. Most of the 200,000 square feet of warehouse on the property dates to the 1950s.
"We have all this space we don't need, and all we want to do is find a reuse for the property," Doornbos said.
Tens of thousands of square feet of the property isn't original, he said, and questioned how it qualifies for landmark status.
"I'm not trying to say this glibly, but I've never really heard of a historical warehouse."