An industrial corner of North Philadelphia offers a refreshing taste of Coca-Cola’s architecture | Inga Saffron
Every bottle of Coca-Cola in the tri-state area originates in a handsome 1940s building on Erie Avenue.
Philadelphia’s sweetened beverage tax may have taken some of the fizz out of local soda sales, but Coca-Cola remains a ubiquitous presence in our lives. Its loopy, red-and-white typeface is probably the best-known logo in the world. Variations on the design plaster our corner stores and sporting events, T-shirts, and newsstands. We hum its jingles and remember its tag lines.
It’s probably no surprise, then, that a company so adept at branding also would have a keen eye for architecture. As Coca-Cola began to establish a national network of bottling plants in the late 1920s, it created some of the country’s most memorable industrial buildings. Most are based on the same standardized prototype, yet each plant sports its own local flourishes. Like its bubbly namesake, the designs manage to be simultaneously stylish and generic ― in other words, classic Coke.
Philadelphia got its official Coca-Cola bottling plant later than many of its peer cities. The low-slung, red-brick building opened in 1946 at 725 E. Erie Ave. and G Street in North Philadelphia’s Harrowgate section, an area of lettered streets that developed into a modern industrial corridor in the 1920s. Served at the time by the Erie Avenue trolley, the corridor was already home to such industrial giants as Cuneo Printing Corp., Crown Can Co., and Yellow Jackets Stadium, which hosted car races and football games (although it was not home to the Yellow Jackets football team, forerunner of the Eagles).
The early 20th century was a period of rapid growth for Coca-Cola. The drink, which had been concocted by an Atlanta pharmacist in 1886, had initially been sold at soda fountains and restaurants. The product arrived in large jugs and staff would have to dilute the thick Coke syrup by mixing it with carbonated water.
But as bottling technology improved, Coca-Cola decided it needed a more standardized approach that would guarantee that a Coke in Philadelphia tasted exactly the same as a Coke in San Francisco. In 1928, the company began building bottling plants in major cities to produce the soft drink according to uniform specifications. Because Coke was still seen as something vaguely medicinal, the company wanted architecture that was modern and that suggested that its cola was being produced in a hygienic environment.
Most of the early bottling facilities were designed in the then-popular art deco style. They featured numerous decorative flourishes, such as stylized Coke bottles in the stone friezes over the entrances. Although the main facades tended to be relatively plain, Coke’s architects would mark the entrances with an ornately sculpted stone door frame.
The start of World War II put a halt to the company’s expansion. Philadelphia had to make do with an undersized bottling plant at 33rd and Dickinson in South Philadelphia, a boxy factory building with a sawtoothed roof constructed in 1939.
Once the war was over, Coca-Cola was eager to satisfy pent-up consumer demand for its product. By then, however, Coke had moved on from art deco to the more functionalist International Style. It dispatched its in-house architect, Jesse M. Shelton, to design an appropriate plant for Philadelphia.
While more sedate than Coke’s art deco buildings, Philadelphia’s plant is no less stylish. Like the earlier bottlers, it sports a large stone-framed entrance portal, but flattened, with only modest detailing. In keeping with the tenets of the International Style, the plant is sleek and low and features horizontal ribbon windows on the second floor. It’s interesting that the ground-floor windows are set vertically. If you look closely, you can see Coke’s products swirling along the company’s manufacturing lines.
The functionalist aspect of Shelton’s design is most evident in the crisp, concrete platforms that extend just past the facade, creating a modest overhang and giving the building a slight shadow line. The overhang functions as the sole decorative element.
It’s not all business inside, however. The lobby, which resembles several other Shelton designs, is pure art deco, with a spiraling stair, outlined with a stainless-steel railing. The rich woodwork is etched with a swirling gold pattern. Shelton designed an almost identical plant in Louisiana a year after the Erie Avenue bottler opened.
Over the years, Philadelphia’s 26-acre plant has gone back and forth between the parent company and franchise owners. In 1985, it became the first black-owned Coca-Cola bottler when it was purchased by businessman J. Bruce Llewellyn and basketball star Julius Erving. In 2017, the bottler was acquired by a new group, headed by a former executive, Fran McGorry, and partner Paul Mulligan, who renamed it Liberty Coca-Cola Beverages. Virtually every bottle of Coca-Cola consumed from New York City to Delaware is produced at their North Philadelphia plant.
The new group has maintained the exterior impeccably. Walking onto the vast production floor is like stepping into a giant whirling machine. Bottles shuttle overhead in a steady, single-file stream. After being filled with various liquids, capped, and labeled, they spin up spiral conveyors that take them to a packing machine. The machinery can turn a single, thumb-sized plug of plastic into a capped bottle of Coca-Cola in 3½ minutes, said Dennis Veneri, the plant’s facilities director.
According to McGorry, sales in the city have dropped 20% since the sugary drinks tax was imposed. Increased sales in the suburbs have partially made up the difference.
While many of the early Coca-Cola bottling plants designed by Shelton have been idled — including Philadelphia’s twin in Louisiana — the conveyors on Erie Avenue continue to run almost nonstop, especially now that the holiday season is underway. The bottling lines operate six days a week, producing nearly seven million cases of soft drinks a year — not just Coke, but products such as Honest Tea, Dasani, and Glaceau Smartwater. Seven decades after Philadelphia got its taste of Coca-Cola architecture, it remains a living piece of Philadelphia’s industrial heritage.