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Velie's a reminder of bygone era

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Gary Krambeck

The former Velie mansion in Moline was vacant when Kaizen Development Co. of America bought the building and 4.4 surrounding acres in 1996. Quad City Bank and Trust will open its third Quad-Cities branch on the first floor of the mansion Feb. 17.

MOLINE -- Lovers gazed into each others' eyes in small grass huts along the Tahitian room wall.

Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren dressed in Sunday best lifted glasses in a Mother's Day salute to Grandma at tables in the Library.

Giggling high-school dates tried to think of something witty to say over dinner in the Velie Room before the homecoming dance.

When important things happened to Quad-Citians, they often were celebrated at Villa Velie. It has been a playground for the wealthy, a table for the gourmet, a haven for antique-lovers -- and soon it will be a bank. Whatever the passage of time has offered, the elegant home has accepted with style.

The 46-room mansion perches atop Moline's 7th Street hill, an aging matriarch gracefully surveying a landscape much changed over the decades. Her creamy yellow exterior belies a rich -- and sometimes turbulent -- past.

Though endlessly bought, sold and remodeled, Villa Velie remains a physical reminder of a bygone era.

The mansion is inextricably connected to the Velies, descendants of John Deere who became famous and wealthy through the Velie Motor Vehicle Co., which produced cars and, later, Monocoupe airplanes. The lore of early Moline is mixed with the very mortar and stone in the mansion's thick walls.

Willard Lamb Velie was the third son of Stephen H. Velie Sr. and Emma Deere, daughter of John Deere. W.L. Velie graduated from Yale in 1888 and, two years later, married his college roommate's sister, Anne Flowerree, daughter of a Helena, Mont., cattle baron.

Mr. Velie started out in the family business, acting as secretary to the Deere & Co. board of directors. However, his ambition to build his own company led Mr. Velie to resign as secretary in 1901, though he retained his position on the board until his death.

In 1902, Mr. Velie founded the Velie Carriage Co., which made horse-drawn buggies and wagons. He supplied Midwestern farmers with transportation they needed while simultaneously experimenting with automobile engines and designs.

Mr. Velie debuted the Velie 30, better known as ``Old Maud,'' in 1908, and it was a smooth ride from there. The company produced a reliable car for a reasonable price, and customers flocked to buy them.

Four years later, riding high on nearly $1.5 million in company assets, W.L. and Anne Velie ordered the construction of a home befitting their success.

The Velies had fallen in love with the sea towns of southern Italy on numerous travels through Europe. When they returned to Moline, they set out to recreate an Italian villa on their 500-acre property on the bluffs above the Rock River. The mansion was the culmination of the Velies' admiration of European splendor, their lust for the good life transformed into stone.

Architects and artisans from Italy and Greece lent their skill to the extravagant building. When the home formally opened to Moline society in December 1913, it was the largest and most expensive home between Chicago and San Simeon, Cal.

In the Dec. 6th, 1913, edition of the Moline Daily Dispatch, the awe-struck society writer described the home as ``the most magnificent in the middlewest.''

Two orchestras serenaded the 500 poshly dressed guests as they explored every nook and cranny of the 46-room mansion. The cream of early Moline society nosed through four suites of apartments and a den on the second floor, and additional bedchambers on the third floor.

The ground and first floors were of marble, the library walls were lined with wooden built-in bookcases, and the walls were splendidly frescoed. Frappe was served in a large hall off the ballroom to dancers taking a rest from a waltz.

Outside the glittering windows, a vineyard containing 21 grape varieties from southern France spilled down the hillside to the Rock River. A vintner brought from Greece bottled Velie wine with gold-leaf labels. A giant conservatory housed banana trees that produced the exotic fruit year-round.

A putting green, sculptured gardens and a ski run extending to the river ensured that the Velies and their children, Willard Jr. and Marjorie, had plenty of recreational opportunities. Some long-time Moliners contend a swimming pool was installed on the home's lower level and was later covered over for a dance floor.

The Velies lived in grand style while their company prospered. Velie capital stock was valued at $2 million in 1916. A company-record high of 9,000 cars was produced in 1920.

Mr. Velie named his son a company vice president in 1927. The younger Velie soon persuaded his father the future lay in aviation. They bought controlling interest in Central States Aircraft Corp. of Davenport, and began making the Monocoupe private airplane.

By 1928, the Velie Monocoupe engine was given ``highest rating'' by the U.S. Department of Commerce, and plans were made to build a new Monocoach with four seats.

W.L. Velie never saw those plans realized. He died in October 1928 at the age of 62. The cause of death reportedly was an embolism complicated by a heart problem.

His death boded ill for the Velie family and its company. Manufacture of Velie automobiles was halted the following month, and the company was sold shortly after to an Indianapolis firm.

The surviving Velies closed the glorious mansion on 7th Street and moved to a smaller home at 11th Avenue and 9th Street, Moline.

Then W.L. Velie Jr. died, in March 1929, just four months after his father. His death was attributed to a heart attack, but rumors still persist today.

Shortly thereafter, the Velie airplane company was sold to a St. Louis firm.

Villa Velie stood vacant until 1941, when Stan Weidner bought it and turned the home into a restaurant called The Plantation.

Nic Chirekos became manager of the Plantation in 1949 and bought the business in 1957. Under his tutelage, the Plantation became known throughout the Midwest as a high-class restaurant.

The Plantation offered Quad-Citians who had not been alive during the Velies' reign, or who had not been privileged enough to be invited to one of the family's lavish parties, a glimpse of the building's interior.

For the price of a drink, patrons could sit at the piano bar and sip Plantation Punch while Sinclair Lewis tickled the ivories. For the price of a dinner, they could sit in the library and imagine what it must have been like to live in the enormous home.

However, as W.L. Velie's death signaled the end of his family's era, Mr. Chirekos' murder in 1979 by employee Rudy Kloiber signaled the end of the Plantation's greatest success.

Restaurateurs J. Allen Johnson, C. David Koenig and Marvin Schrager bought the mansion and in 1982 opened W.L. Velie's, an upscale restaurant, Harry's Bar and Grill, and the Back Door night club.

They closed the three businesses in May 1992, citing intense competition from riverboat gambling. Five months later, they opened Governor's West pub and Velie's Antique Center, but both closed Aug. 15, 1993.

The mansion was vacant once again until Kaizen Development Co. of America bought the building and 4.4 surrounding acres in 1996. Quad City Bank and Trust will open its third Quad-Cities branch on the first floor of the mansion Feb. 17.

Villa Velie's rich history and glorious location attracted QCBT to the location, according to senior vice president John Bradley.

``The property has such an incredible history,'' Mr. Bradley said. ``It's very near and dear to the Quad-Cities, and we certainly hope people will be pleased with the renovation.

``When I think of a landmark place in Moline, this is it.''

W.L. Velie would be pleased.

-- By Sarah Larson (February 9, 1998)

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