The Yuncker Family Returns to Bottleworks Indy.
The stately Coca-Cola bottling plant at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and College has been an institution in Indianapolis since 1931. No one is more familiar with its history than the Yuncker family, who built the plant and ran it for the vast majority of its operation. The lavish art deco space and the relatives who ran it were a larger than life presence in family lore that has been passed on for generations. We had the opportunity to invite the descendants of the founding Yuncker clan to tour the plant before the renovations began, and we spoke to them about the beautiful history of this storied building and its place in the Indianapolis community.
The bottling plant was once the largest in the world, survived the Great Depression, and was renowned for its stunning architecture and interiors. “Jim and Lee [Yuncker] weren’t cheap men,” explained Matthew Benkendorf, a great grandnephew of Jim. “Part of it is I think they felt a commitment to the employees before and after the crash. They wanted their employees to know they were going to be fine.”
“Bottlers came from all over the world to come see this place because it was the biggest most state of the art thing that had ever been.”
It was a desirable place to work and many of the employees lived in the surrounding neighborhood, which strengthened the sense of responsibility for the community. Sharon Linares, a great grandniece of Jim, recalled, “Everyone was always dressed nicely, no matter their job. People felt proud to work here, and they truly respected Jim and Lee.”
The plant itself was a point of pride for the community. “Bottlers came from all over the world to come see this place because it was the biggest most state of the art thing that had ever been,” Matthew remarked. “People couldn’t even believe it.”
Though none of them Yunckers by name any longer, the most remarkable and touching details of their family legacy were revealed in their stories of the family’s micro philanthropy. “They had several secretaries who worked for them, and one of their daily jobs was to go through the newspaper and look for people who, maybe their house caught on fire or something really unfortunate happened to them. These people were contacted to find out what they really needed and the family—the company—would have just done it,” Sharon explained. “Whatever they needed to get back on their feet. And often, the recipients didn’t know where it came from.”
Matthew recalled another instance when, “a church in the neighborhood couldn’t afford heating, so they had to cancel mass for the winter. Well, Uncle Jim just called up the electric company and said from now on their bill comes to me. And he paid that bill for years.” Everyone had similar such stories, and we were pleased to learn that their family values so closely align with our vision for the future of the building and community.
“We’re doing our best to be sensitive to the needs of the community and to contribute to its future success through accessibility for all,” explains Isaac Bamgbose, who is leading the new Bottleworks District project. "We plan on being here a very long time and we’d like our legacy to be as well regarded as the Yunckers’.”
“We have a few goals in particular that are high on our list for community building and preservation. Knowing how important the arts are on Mass Ave., we’ve been working to create affordable housing options specifically for artists. We’re also prioritizing keeping the community accessible by bringing in a diverse group of retailers, food, cultural, and entertainment options at a wide range of price points. Being across from the Cultural Trail, we feel it’s important that people feel welcome to come explore and rest without feeling obliged to buy anything, so we plan to create landscaped public spaces throughout.”
Matthew summed things up nicely, remarking, “I’m so glad the space is being maintained and restored—that it isn’t going to be left and lost in time. It’s not being knocked down, but life is going to be brought back into it. That their legacy is going to carry on, it means a lot to us.”