FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Long gone is a Coca-Cola bottling plant from the late 1930s that became a source of pride for Fort Lauderdale. It symbolized how the city was big and important enough to attract one, bringing with it jobs and a boost to the economy. And the plant’s huge display windows let families enjoy watching the workers bottle soft drinks.
Now, Broward County is well underway with restoring this old landmark — at 644 S. Andrews Ave., situated just south of a Publix supermarket — to its former splendor in the city’s downtown. At least from the outside, it will start to resemble what it looked like more than 80 years ago with dozens of replica windows and the same color scheme of paint.
“A lot of people are excited to finally see it coming back to life,” said architect Merrill Romanik. “The branding of Coca-Cola is embedded in our culture. When they introduced this bottling plant to downtown Fort Lauderdale, it had a strong impact to the community.”
Rick Ferrer, the county’s Historic Preservation Officer, said the plant’s construction “was considered a big deal for the city because it signified economic recovery during the Depression; only large cities got Coca-Cola plants.”
When the Chamber of Commerce publicly boasted about Fort Lauderdale’s top job-makers in July of 1940, the company was on the list, with a whopping $20,000 in payroll a year.
Coca-Cola stayed in the headlines for just about any update: In 1941, the Fort Lauderdale News detailed how the wife of a top bottling executive came by train from Chicago with two babies, a nurse and 17 pieces of luggage to stay in their winter home in Idlewyld for the season.
The company bottled soda for decades in its two-story building with a third-story belfry that some experts said had no bell. In 1976, Coca-Cola relocated to Pembroke Park and in 1978, the nearly 2-acre site sold to a cable company. The interior was gutted and the new owners renovated the exterior by removing the huge display windows.
NOW, IT’S COMING BACK
The county, which owns the former plant building, began a $3.1 million construction project in October, and it is expected to be wrapped up sometime next summer.
The inside is a shell; Broward County officials said it has not yet been decided what will be inside, although office space is most likely expected.
Romanik said the reconstruction includes a new roof with barrel tile intended to replicate the original. So are three large picture windows.
“That’s where kids used to be able to look through the windows (to see workers) pour syrup in the bottles and make Coke,” she said. “Those large picture windows are coming back. We are working with a window company and we are bringing them back.”
There are also 36 steel wrought iron windows that are being restored, she said.
The building will again become off-white, with golden yellow as the accent.
This building wasn’t the city’s first bottling plant.
The first one opened in 1914 in a one-story building at Southwest First Avenue and Southwest Sixth Street, its exact address unknown, according to county staff. Among its earliest clientele were the Seminole Indians.
“Purchasing and consumption would have shifted to construction workers and realty brokers during the 1920s when real estate transactions, development and construction increased exponentially,” Ferrer said.
But the plant built new and relocated because business was booming.
A local headline blasted it would “move to larger quarters to meet demand” after sales were up purportedly ninefold. The plant was working “night and day” and Sundays to make 900 cases a day, but the demand for Coca-Cola was far greater. The new plant along Andrews Avenue was projected to make 1,000 cases every 8-hour shift, according to the newspaper.
There were already bottling plants in Homestead, Palm Beach and Miami and the 1939 grand opening was held “with much fanfare and a street festival,” according to Ferrer.
Ariadna Musarra, the county’s director of the Construction Management Division, said architects are relying on blueprints from the bottling plants of its sister facility in Ocala, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and now privately owned.
But not everything will be restored.
The bottling company’s name, for example, will not be branded back on the building because it’s trademarked and owned by Coca-Cola. A corporate spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
Historical experts say it’s a relief to know some preservation is underway.
“Returning things to how it looked historically, it gives the city more character,” said Ellery Andrews, History Fort Lauderdale deputy director. “It brings awareness to what we used to be like, how we’ve grown. … There’s so much history.”
Phil Mooney was the historian and archivist for the Coca-Cola Company for 36 years. He’s now retired and still living in Georgia. He said the “strength of the company” is that the bottling plants were run by local people “who knew the community” and joined the Rotary Clubs and the Chambers by design.
He said there were about 1,200 bottling plants nationwide in the late 1920s and 1930s and the picture windows were a staple throughout: “You wanted the community to see what was going on, to see the manufacturing process, get a sense of quality and purity. There was no hiding the process, they wanted you to see it.”
He said there were generally three designs for bottling plants, a small, medium and large version and often made with brick “so when you went from town to town, you said, ‘Oh, it’s a Coca-Cola plant!’”
“It’s fantastic,” Mooney said of the restoration efforts. “It takes us back to a simpler time of life reflective of a point of time in the community. It’s a good snapshot of history.”
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