The old mansion on the hill in Moline needs all 46 rooms to store the memories.
Anyone who spent any time in the Quad-Cities between the 1940s and about 1980 knows about the Plantation — the fancy, full-menu mansion-turned restaurant, where the wealthy were regulars and everyone else saved for special occasions.
There were a dozen dining rooms and even more fireplaces. The wait staff could have fielded two football teams, and the cocktail lounge — the Tahitian Room — produced more memories than it did rum hangovers.
The foundation for the massive mansion was poured in the fall of 1911, and construction began in earnest in 1912. Villa Velie was finished in 1913, and its 500-acre grounds stretched south from its perch on the 7th Street bluff all the way to the Rock River.
Willard Velie, a grandson of John Deere, built his mansion with the riches he earned as an automaker.
Though the place certainly was no slouch as a residence, its real claim-to-fame came in the middle of the century. Nick and Pauline Chirekos bought the restaurant/home in the late-1950s, and its star began to rise.
The Plantation had a remarkable run for a restaurant and drew well-heeled diners from the region and beyond. It may have survived even longer if not for a maintenance man who crept into Nick Chirekos' second-floor office in 1979, intent on relieving the restaurateur of the contents of his safe.
But Nick — a suave, friendly, well-respected Greek — happened into his office as it was being robbed. In return, Rudy Kloiber ordered him to the floor, then shot him in the head, execution style.
Today, more people remember the man than the murder.
And, to many, the Plantation had a life of its own. The memories that were made there — made because it was there — are the Plantation's legacy.
Hearing a ghost
Nick Chirekos is said to have taken his dinner in the same place every evening — in one corner of "The Library," which was a dining room with built-in book shelves and handsomely paneled walls.
After Nick died, some workers reported hearing a man clear his throat as they entered the empty room. Others said they heard a ghost in the Tahitian Room. Today, some who work at what is now the headquarters for Quad-City Bank & Trust's parent company, QCR Holdings, report finding items moved from where they were left in the mansion offices.
Ghost or no ghost, the former Plantation has a spirit. It can be felt immediately upon entering the main lobby, where giant block walls frame the open, marble staircase. Its brass railing climbs up to a mezzanine, which is lit by leaded-glass windows and flanked by hand-painted murals.
The two-story fireplace, with faces carved into the plaster, assures old-time visitors they are in the right place: the home of the garlic-heavy Plantation dressing and the painting of a bare-breasted Tahitian maiden.
Funny the things people remember, including the ice cubes in the urinals. While some supposed the cubes served some extravagant purpose, I am told they were poured into the urinals each day, because faulty plumbing prevented them from a proper rinse.
An old menu for the Tahitian Room promises, "All the allure of the South Pacific," and the lounge delivered. Fruity drinks were served in special glasses and garnished with tiny umbrellas. Many blushing guests would sneak peeks at the racy painting of a half-naked woman. I'm told it was heavily secured to its place on the wall, because so many tipsy guests attempted to take it home.
The piece no longer is on display at the bank building now dubbed Velie's Plantation.
"She is in safe keeping, shall we say," said QCR Holdings President and CEO Doug Hultquist. "It's not really something for a bank. I don't know what the regulators would say."
Bricks and mortar
As guests dined in the elegance of the first floor of the Plantation, men discreetly gathered to gamble on the third floor.
"The public never saw much of things that weren't necessarily legal," Hultquist said.
It is a challenge now to separate truth from lore. It is a well-known fact that poker games were routine in the private rooms upstairs. Some say slot machines were stored and played in the basement for a period, too. And, by the way, there never was a pool in the Plantation's basement, but there was an outdoor pool in the mansion's early days.
The most important parts of the Plantation's history are not in question; they are preserved in memories.
Just inside the main entrance, at the counter where long-ago dinner guests stopped to check their coats, Danielle Berger, client relationship associate for QCR Holdings, has a front-row seat for the nostalgia that frequently drifts through the door.
"I have people come in and say they took prom pictures on the stairs," Berger said. "Recently, a woman came in who had her rehearsal dinner here.
"What's cool is: We get a lot of people who don't even bank here and want to come in and look around. They say, 'Is that OK?' Of course, it's OK."
In fact, when the restaurant was transformed into a banking headquarters in 1997, the pursuit of nostalgia was taken into consideration.
The Plantation's main dining room is directly beyond the main lobby. Its lavish plaster detail, gorgeous custom lighting and dazzling fireplace surely are seared into the memories of those who dined there. And that's why QCR made a point to keep it accessible.
"Most of our trust customers are older people who would remember this building," Hultquist said. "That's why we chose this room for the trust department."
Just beyond the main dining room/trust department is the Fleur-de-lis dining room, with its oversized, sculpted plaster above each extra-tall doorway. And beyond the Fleur-de-lis is the bank's lobby.
"This is probably what we changed most dramatically," Hultquist said. "This was the kitchen. The only addition we made to the building was the drive-up banking. Other than that, the building is original."
The former kitchen is an appropriate place to make deposits, given that satisfied dinner guests frequently asked to be taken to the kitchen, so they could personally tip the cooks.
When Hultquist took us into the kitchen-turned-bank, a puzzled-looking employee was looking up at the ceiling light that was flashing on and off above her head.
"Nick?" I asked.
"Some would say so," Hultquist answered.
Hultquist, the CEO of QCR Holdings, said he had reservations about transforming the old mansion/restaurant into his company's headquarters.
"In fact, I initially scoffed at the idea," he said, adding that, without the company's commitment, "It might've seen the wrecking ball. But the building is solid as a rock. That helped us decide: Yes, we can do this."
There was just so much to do. The building was near ruin, having been vacant and ignored for many years. In addition to replacing all the electrical and HVAC, the detailed plaster and woodwork needed a lot of expensive attention.
Standing in the former library, which now is a conference room, Hultquist pointed up to the coffered ceiling and said, "There was this German handyman in his 70s who got on his back on scaffolding to paint every square."
Turning to the adjoining main dining room, he said, "We kept all 13 fireplaces. We didn't keep them operational. It was too much a risk."
On the other side of the library is the former Tahitian Room, which went away during the building's relatively short life as another set of restaurants and bars, including Velie's, Harry's Bar & Grill and the Back Door, which was a basement-level dance bar. The infamous Tahitian lounge now is used for office space.
Hultquist brought his own memories with him when he moved into his third-floor office.
He was there when his wife's family celebrated her 16th birthday. His college roommate had his wedding reception at the Plantation, and his Augustana College fraternity had its functions on the second floor.
"Other than the kitchen conversion, the building is pretty much original," he said as we headed outside to see the view to the south. "If the leaves weren't on the trees, you could see all the way to the Rock River. And the Velies owned all of that. It must have been something."
THE place to celebrate
We posted an old photo of the Plantation on the Quad-City Times Facebook page and asked readers to send us their memories. The comments and emails poured in.
Here is a sampling, and many others can be seen with the online version of this story at qctimes.com:
"I had my first alcoholic drink at the Tiki (Tahitian) Room, along with my parents and then-beau. It was a very fancy, light-on-the-booze-by-request strawberry daiquiri, resplendent with two pink parasols and a fancy straw. Dad always used to talk in low tones about the goings on and gambling in the upstairs rooms, especially during WWII and Prohibition." — Jane Sue Williamson, Davenport.
"I bused dishes at banquets there in about 1965. It was an incredible place, especially for the 17-year-old son of a factory worker. It was where I had my first experience with fine dining, my first chance to meet people from another part of the world and eat the incredible food they prepared in the Cantonese Kitchen, and my first experience watching the 'beautiful people' at play.
"And they paid me to do it! It wasn't unusual for me to walk out of there at the end of the night with $25 in tips. Doesn't sound like much to you? If you plug $25 into an inflation calculator you'll find that it's worth $196 today. This was a great time in my life. What a place." — Ed Meyers, Washington D.C.
"Saturday night was 'date-night' ritual for Mom and Dad. There would be some cool '50s jazz vinyl on the hi-fi spinning while they were getting dressed to kill. Black cocktail dress, pearls, and heels for Mom, then a suave suit for the old man. Excitement was in the air because the Plantation was usually their destination. Kids would be abandoned at home with a sitter to watch The Lawrence Welk show on our one TV. (We obviously had no say in the selection.)" — Mitch McNeil, Chicago.
"Birthdays and my parents' anniversary were always at the Plantation. I always wanted to sit in the Tiki (Tahitian) Room, much to my fathers’ dismay.
"I went there for my first Sadie Hawkins dance and had dinner in the library; pretty special night. I had my first taste of Crème De Menthe, sipping on a Grasshopper at the Plantation. It makes me sad that the current generation will never know the elegance, proper dress and proper manners needed for the Plantation." — Bruceanne Phillips, St. Paul.
"I remember going to the Plantation when I was a little girl. I am 50 now. It was a BIG DEAL to be going there for dinner! My mom would dress my sister and me in our pretty dresses. Mom and Dad would be all fancy. We'd bring our best manners, and we'd have a lovely time." — Cathy May, Bettendorf.
"My mom would give me a quarter to tip the lady in the bathroom to hand me a towel. I thought that was cool, so I tried to go in there several times while we were dining, just to get the lady to hand me a towel. Looking back to my era, it compares to kids now wanting money to play the video games when dining with their families. Life was so much simpler back then." — Linda Lingard, Rock Island.
"Wow, the memories! The Plantation was my first job in 1974, making those yummy salads. That's where I first learned to devein shrimp. Yuck! I remember seeing Mr. Chirekos when he made the occasional stroll through the kitchen. Years later, in 1986, I got engaged downstairs at The Back Door." — Judy Holder, Rock Island.
"I remember, in 1971, my Mom and Pop taking me to the Plantation for my 16th surprise birthday party that my Mom and Dad threw me with two of my best girlfriends. It was a wonderful time. We all had kiddie cocktails. I remember it like it was yesterday." — Connie Davis-DeLong, Wesley Chapel, Fla.
"I worked in all the main floor rooms: Velie, Fleur de Lis, Library (my favorite), Tahitian and Horse Shoe Bar.
"The number of service folks was amazing to me. Each room had a a bevy of busboys, cocktail waitresses and food waitresses. Busboys folded napkins in the shape of a sail boat, placed china & silver service, served both cold and hot roll baskets, carried food trays from kitchen to a table-side tray stand to be served by the food waitress (whom had earlier taken the table's order), filled and refilled water glasses, coffee, tea, etc., emptied ash trays and removed china and silver as meals were concluded.
"Food waitresses took appetizer, main course and desert orders and served from the trays brought out by busboys. Cocktail waitresses took cocktail orders and delivered same. They were tipped separately. Busboys and food waitresses 'shared' tips, but I'm pretty sure we young fellas got the short straw on that deal." — Jack Slater, Moline.
Contact Barb Ickes at 563-383-2316 or email@example.com.