Indianapolis’ Bottleworks District: A new neighborhood rises from a former Coca-Cola factory

·7 min read

When my artsy, hip 22-year-old niece announced she was planning to move to Indianapolis post-college graduation, the lifelong Chicagoan in me was perplexed. “What happened to moving to Chicago?”

After just a few weekend visits while a student at Miami University of Ohio, she’d decided to make the so-called Circle City her home, and the launchpad of her web design and branding business. “I changed my mind. Come visit! You’ll love it!”

When I hear the word “hipster,” I think of Chicago, specifically Logan Square, Wicker Park and Pilsen. But after spending a weekend in Indianapolis’ newest neighborhood, the Bottleworks District, I was reminded that hipsters and Indianapolis aren’t mutually exclusive. Since my last visit over 10 years ago, Indianapolis feels recharged with diversity, creativity and an approachable art scene.

My 11-year-old daughter and I rolled into town on the first Friday night of the month — when Indianapolis’ galleries, studios and cultural businesses open their doors to the public, and larger galleries debut work by local or national artists — and headed straight to Circle City Industrial Complex (CCIC).

With works by more than 100 artists, the half-million-square-foot complex, built in 1918, was originally the home of the Schwitzer Corporation, an early automotive parts manufacturer (owner Louis Schwitzer was the winner of the first race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909). Today it’s home to Indianapolis’ largest and perhaps most vibrant artist community.

An open studio door is an invitation to come in. I chatted with budding and expert glassblowers over flaming burners at Glass Arts Indiana, a collaborative glass community; my daughter watched in awe as Martha Nahrwold created her art by floating paints on water. Photographer Jedediah Johnson was using an ultraviolet camera to take portraits of visitors to his studio space. “I enjoy faces,” he said. “I haven’t seen many in the past year. I’d like to change that.”

At the Schwitzer Gallery, located on the second floor of the North Studios, I met Matthew Cooper, the evening’s featured artist, who just recently debuted a modern triptych on the boarded-up windows of the Old City Hall, created in response to Black Lives Matter protests.

“The art scene here is so vibrant, thanks to consistent forward progress of diversifying the arts and allowing artists of different backgrounds and practices to showcase their work,” Cooper said. “I feel in the last five years, Indy artists have forced a new culture upon the city, forcing it to adapt to our new ways of displaying and showcasing our talents, our way. I’m seeing more and more talented artists and collectives working together, which is beautiful.”

Much of that work is on proud public display, said Rachel Ferguson, vice president at Teagen Development, the urban redevelopers behind several creative reuse projects in downtown Indianapolis, including the CCIC.

“I think things really started to shift when Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl in 2012,” Ferguson said. “The city invested a huge amount of money in public art by local artists, and I think it indicated to people that Indianapolis is a city that values art and artists. You really can’t walk more than a block in Indianapolis now without seeing some kind of public art, whether it’s a sculpture, a mural, a creatively designed bus stop, a free street-side book-lending library, or something else.”

The CCIC is home to more than art: Centerpoint Brewing serves beer in suite B01; New Day Craft has a tasting room in suite D01; and 8th Day Distillery has a cocktail bar in suite D06. There’s also a Fowling Warehouse. Invented in 2001 by a group of friends from Detroit tailgating at the Indy 500, Fowling is a rollicking game that combines football, bowling and cornhole, best enjoyed over beer. The first person to knock down an opponent’s 10 pins (positioned in a typical bowling alley layout) with a football wins.

It’s only a 5-minute walk from the CCIC to the boutique Bottleworks Hotel, the hub of the very walkable, 12-acre Bottleworks District, once the largest Coca-Cola bottling plant in downtown Indianapolis.

Many of the luxurious, spacious rooms of the 139-key Art Deco gem of a hotel once housed Coca-Cola company executive offices. The cherry red, cursive logo is still emblazoned on its shiny, white-glazed terra cotta exterior. A sleek staircase, with railings resembling a flowing soda fountain spout, winds up from the lobby to a small second-floor rotunda capped with a circa-1930s light fixture that recalls effervescent bubbles. Two icy cold glass bottles of Coca-Cola were waiting for us in the mini-fridge.

The Bottleworks Hotel offers enough that you’d never need to leave its premises during a long weekend getaway: There’s Blue Collar Coffee Co.’s handcrafted coffee drinks, Asian-fusion restaurant Modita’s sushi, dim sum, noodles and robata-grilled specialties, and even a day spa, The Woodhouse Day Spa, with its very own halotherapy salt cave dotted with zero-gravity chairs. My daughter and I captured our funniest facial expressions on film thanks to the sweet vintage photo booth on the hotel’s second floor.

The surrounding former plant buildings once buzzed with over 250 workers rolling out over 2.25 million glass bottles of Coca-Cola a week during its heyday. Enter aluminum cans in the 1960s: By 1964, Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman purchased the entire plant to store his car collection.

The Garage Food Hall, located directly across from the hotel, occupies two garages that once launched thousands of Coca-Cola delivery trucks on routes throughout the state. Today, the 38,000-square-foot structure houses the city’s first food hall and community-focused marketplace, home to 20 independently owned, local and regional vendors.

Highlights include traditional Venezuelan arepas from Azucar Morena, steak sandwiches from Gaucho’s Fire, lobster rolls from J’s Lobster & Fish Market, and shucked-to-order oysters from Blupoint. For traveling families who can’t ever seem to agree on a dinner destination, this elevated food court offers something for everyone. My daughter especially loved the handcrafted watermelon aguas fresca with boba at the Asian-fusion taquería, La Chinita Poblana.

There’s also plenty of communal seating and a robust schedule of live, free entertainment. In the summer, the Garage’s doors roll up, and patio seating extends street-side.

The Bottleworks District is also home to Living Room Theaters, where you can sink into an automated recliner and enjoy the latest art-house flicks with state-of-the-art audio, visual and lighting systems, for a fully immersive moviegoing experience. It’s an absolute delight after lockdown.

At Pins Mechanical Company, we gave duckpin bowling a roll: similar to bowling, only the pins are shorter and the bowling balls are smaller with no finger holes. I forgot how much I enjoy pinball machines — Pins Mechanical is home to over 40 — and my daughter tested her skills on the “Jetsons” and “Ghostbusters” games.

We ended our trip on wheels, biking through greenways and into other historic neighborhoods located along the 8.1-mile Cultural Trail, on an ActiveIndy guided bicycle tour. The Arts Council of Indianapolis lists 61 pieces of public art along or near the trail. My daughter was delighted when she rode her bicycle over Chatham Passage, an ornate, artist-designed steel grate atop a hidden vault that emits a rose fragrance via an underground scent machine — an homage to the circa-1922 Real Silk Hosiery Mill that once stood nearby.

Though it was a city designed for cars, Indianapolis has added 26 miles of bike lanes and 31 miles of trails since 2016; by the end of 2021, the Cultural Trail will be extended to include South Street and Indiana Avenue.

“Indianapolis cycling culture continues to improve because ongoing infrastructure improvements are creating a system of interconnected trails and bike lanes that are more accessible than ever, to all kinds of riders,” said Nathan Smurdon, owner and guide at ActiveIndy. “The best way to experience Indianapolis’ historic neighborhoods and public art installations is at a human pace, by bicycle — so you can fully appreciate all of these cool, new and old places and spaces.”

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