Blue Island’s historic Libby Building named ‘most endangered’ amid legal dispute

The Libby, McNeill and Libby Building in Blue Island has been named one of 2024’s Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois by Landmarks Illinois, a nonprofit group that advocates for the preservation of the state’s history.

Nine other buildings made the list, announced May 7, including the Portage Theater in Chicago and the Johnson County Courthouse in Vienna. Criteria require the buildings to have an important history, be under threat mostly because of neglect and have a path forward to be rescued, according to the nonprofit’s website.

“The former canning and bottling factory was built in 1918 for the Libby, McNeill and Libby company, the second-largest producer of canned foods in the country at the time,” a news release from the Landmarks Illinois states. “The building is currently vacant and is beginning to decay due to a lack of reuse and proper maintenance.”

Landmarks Illinois Chief Operating Officer Frank Butterfield said Friday the space has two attributes that make him hopeful it can be returned to its once vibrant condition.

The Libby is an industrial building which allows for many possibilities for development. Theaters, for example, are more difficult to save because the structure cannot be easily manipulated into a different space, Buttefield explained.

Also giving Butterfield hope is that the building is a step away from the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places — a designation that brings with it incentives that excite potential developers.

“This building in 2012 had a preliminary determination of eligibility for the national register,” said Butterfield, noting this designation provides a 20% tax credit to developers and other incentives. “Those are often game changers.”

The building is threatened by a dispute between the owner of the land and the city of Blue Island. The building was donated to two not-for-profit groups, Affordable Recovery Housing and Residence for Patriots Services, that have tried over several years to use the 27,000 square-foot building in a way that benefits the community.

John Dunleavy runs Affordable Recovery Housing and his idea is to turn the building into a “fun factory” that provides recovering addicts and residents a safe and fun activity center with an arcade inside.

But the city has objected to Dunleavy’s plan and taken issue with his maintenance of the building. Building inspectors leveled over 100 complaints over the way the building is being kept, noting overgrown weeds, structural issues and a lack of overall maintenance.

The building’s pothole-filled parking lot is littered with trash and broken bottles. Inside, a mess of clothes, old furniture and some athletic equipment is strewn about the unlit warehouse. Dunleavy said he hopes to donate much of the items collected in the building’s many unused rooms.

During a tour in November 2023, Dunleavy acknowledged the dilapidated nature inside and outside the building and confirmed people are living in the space. But he blamed the city for not allowing his building to gain the finances it needs to conduct the necessary upgrades.

In May 2022, Blue Island filed a cease and desist letter calling for the facility to be shut down.

“As you know, the Libby has no water and the property has been deemed a dangerous, unsafe, and occupiable property,” the letter, filed May 23, 2022, and addressed to Dunleavy, stated. “You do not have an occupancy certificate for this building nor a business license for the Affordable Fun Factory.”

Dunleavy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The city spokesman said Friday no business should be operating there under terms of a temporary court injunction.

Landmarks Illinois says “the building continues to sit vacant and is beginning to decay” while the pending legal dispute between Dunleavy and Blue Island continues to delay the development. The city hopes Dunleavy will sell the building to a new developer, a spokesman for Blue Island wrote in a statement Friday.

“Unfortunately, the current owner of the Libby Building has not maintained the property and refuses to cooperate with the City in our efforts to find a responsible developer,” the spokesman wrote. “There is currently a temporary injunction that put a stop to some of the unlicensed and unsafe activity that was taking place inside the building last year.”

When it was a canning factory, it was the second-largest producer of canned foods in the country with a workforce of 800 employees at its height, according to Landmarks Illinois.

“The factory closed in 1968 as agriculture relocated to Central and Southern Illinois,” the nonprofit wrote in its reasoning for why the building was selected. “Today, the building is a reminder of Blue Island’s industry, the beating heart of the community for decades.”

Landmarks Illinois believes the best solution for the building is to convert it into office space. The group asks Calumet Heritage Partnership to express support for preserving the Libby Building.

Since 1995, Landmarks Illinois has curated its list of endangered buildings every year except one, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Butterfield said. While about a quarter of the buildings have not been saved, Butterfield said the list has a long track record of being able to draw more resources and attention to the dire condition of local gems.

“There are some wonderful success stories; creative solutions for many of the properties on the list,” Butterfield said.