National call to preserve the legacy of a Philadelphia champion

A modest monument to athletic grit, sweat and blood – Joe Frazier’s Gym in North Philadelphia – was named Wednesday one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation made the announcement at the Temple University School of Architecture, where a professor and his students started the fight to preserve the building at 2917 North Broad St.

While the building is not in imminent danger of demolition, explained John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, there is concern that its association with the world champion boxer could easily be lost. A furniture outlet currently occupies the first floor; the top two floors are vacant. Faded lettering still proclaims the building Joe Frazier’s Gym, just above the sign for the discount furniture store.

Last summer, Professor Dennis Playdon saw a “for sale” sign on the building. He brought the idea of nominating the site for the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places to his undergraduate architectural preservation class, one of a handful of such programs in the U.S. They embraced the idea, and later this month will submit the nomination to the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

The Temple class also brought the project to the attention of the Preservation Alliance, which named the gym to its list of endangered Philadelphia sites last year. That got the attention of the National Trust.

The sites on the national list are “important examples of buildings at risk,” Brent Leggs, a field officer for the National Trust, told the gathering at Temple today. “We use this list to raise alarm about threats to America’s historic resources. It has been very successful at galvanizing support. Only a handful of sites placed on the list have been lost.”

Frazier remains “one of America’s most important sports icons,” he said, and the building stands as a significant reminder of Joe’s legacy. It is a reminder that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things.”

Frazier purchased the building in 1968 in the community “where he lived and where he strived,” said his sister Martha Frazier Rhodan. He lived down the street from the gym, and kept returning to the neighborhood throughout this career “because he loved this area.”

Originally called the Cloverlay Gym, the building served as Frazier’s training center through his 1971 victory over Muhammad Ali, dubbed the “Fight of the Century.” After his retirement in 1976, Frazier devoted himself to the gym, which also served as a neighborhood center. The boxing great died in November 2011.

Rhodan, who still lives a few blocks from the building, would like to see it used again as a community center for young people, a resource sorely lacking in that section of North Philadelphia, she said.

Rhodan sat at the press announcement with Vernoca Michael, co-owner, promoter and CEO of the Blue Horizon, another legendary boxing mecca in Philadelphia. Restoration of that building, 1314 North Broad St., has been honored by the Preservation Alliance. Work is under way to create a hotel, entertainment space, restaurant and boxing museum on the site by 2014, Michael said.

Gallery hopes the future of the Frazier Gym will involve using the facility in a way that is “consistent with its use during his lifetime,” as an athletic facility or education center.

Designation on the Philadelphia Register is a first step, said Gary Steuer, Chief Cultural Officer for the city. “Next we need donors to step up” to support redevelopment of the building. “It’s important for Philadelphia to celebrate not just a slice of our history – the Colonial history – but also our more recent history.” He pointed to the need to preserve the homes of great African-American figures from Philadelphia, including Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson and John Coltrane.

Ann Dinh, co-author of the Philadelphia nomination with fellow Temple student Michael Baker, agreed. “We need to look at our more recent history and acknowledge the accomplishments” of individuals like Frazier and his influence on the community.

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