Well, as the saying goes, nostalgia isn't what it used to be, but the old throat choked up to visit the Plantation on the eve of its going on the auction block.
“What am I bid? For openers, $1.2 million,” the auctioneer will likely singsong on Friday morning. It is befitting that the sale of the Moline restaurant should be cried by a lovely woman, Katie Heuer, because the Plantation has always been the grande dame of the Quad-Cities.
Some Quad-Citizens suffer an amnesia about yesterdays, but who can ever forget the Plantation? It will always be that, though in recent years it became Velie's, so-named for the millionaire automobile and airplanebuilding magnate of Moline.
Katie is the blonde daughter of John "Scotty" McFedries, who will be coaxing the audience to up their bids. It could be the grand finale for the grandest mansion ever built in the Quad-Cities. Gloomers say a logical fate is to tear down the empty restaurant and turn the four acres into cushy residential building lots and office plazas. True, it is an unwieldy palace that gobbles up $100,000 a year in maintenance. But it is a place, too, of forgotten dreams and romances unlimited, and I'll wager my thin wallet that it won't be razed.
"I don't think the Quad-Cities would stand for it to be wrecked," says Alan Frankel of Lohman Realty. "There's too much sentiment."
What else, then?
"Maybe a restaurant, once more, in part of the building. Maybe offices in the rest," Frankel adds, offering a guess. There are suggestions that it will go for a $1 million or so. That seems incongruously low, because within view of its two-story porte cochere there are homes in Wildwood costing that much!
Yesterday, I took one last sentimental journey through the place with Al Johnson, one of the owners. Someone was mopping the marble foyer floor. Our heels clicketyclicked down the hallway, past the dim walnut paneled library that is still as it was in the days when the Velies entertained the high and mighty.
Tales were swapped of how the Plantation was known for unique distinctions in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s as the place in the Quad-Cities. It was a standing order that the urinals in the mens' restrooms be always filled with ice cubes. Other distinctions: The garlic dressing that left you with a wilting breath for two weeks, and the claim that the place invented sour cream and chives as an accompaniment for baked potatoes. Even the Saturday Evening Post devoted a whole page to that discovery.
Johnson led the way into what gray hairs remember as the Tahitian Room, a grasshutted rendezvous for lovers. I proposed to my lady love there while Sinclair Mills played "House of Blue Lights." We toasted with a powwow sipper called a Plantation Punch beneath a rearlit photo of a barebreasted Tahitian maiden. That picture became a symbol of the old "Plant," as the incrowd called the place farout on Seventh Street.
When Johnson and his partner, Dave Koenig, took over a dozen years ago, they changed the face of the tinderdry grass Tahitian Room that was always a big fire just waiting to happen. That barebreasted maiden stayed, though, disguised under a painting of a 1928 Velie auto.
"Look," says Johnson, snapping on a light. There, in all her glory, the bosomy maiden reappears - right through the drawing - in all her ample splendor.
Johnson and his partner poured tons of money into remodeling, sensing an opportunity to restore the landmark's glory and make big bucks. Before arrival of the gambling boats, Johnson says the place was doing $2.5 million a year.
"The first year of the boats, business dropped $400,000. We saw what was happening and faced the reality that a big, full-service restaurant like Velie's was not fitting into the scheme of today's Quad-City informal eatingout. We closed."
Climbing the massive twin staircases, Johnson muses:
"This is a building of integrity. I cannot foresee what will happen to it." He pauses on the carpeted landing, admiring the three-storytall foyer fireplace:
"One of the nice things about remembering, is that you only remember the good things."