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Fight is on to save Joe Frazier's gym in Philadelphia

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has put the building, which is up for sale, on its most-endangered list.

June 11, 2012|By Laura J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times
  • Former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier poses for a portrait at his gym in Philadelphia in 2009. Now the site is for sale and preservationists are clamoring to save it.
Former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier poses for a portrait at… (Al Bello, Getty Images )

To some, it's just the In & Out furniture outlet, but to those who remember, the unremarkable building on Philadelphia's north side is where a legend trained — and where great stories were born.

It was a gym back then, and word spread fast in the neighborhood when Muhammad Ali banged his fists on the windows.

"Let's go, coward," Ali taunted, staring through the plate glass toward the center of the boxing ring.

Joe Frazier stared back.

Ali was picking a fight with Smokin' Joe Frazier? The undefeated Joe Frazier, the Joe Frazier who won the Olympic gold?

"You scared?" Frazier's companions remember Ali shouting.

Frazier shook his head. He didn't take the bait.

It would be another year before they formally fought, with Frazier winning in 1971 at Madison Square Garden, for what boxing promoters called the "Fight of the Century."

The red-brick building where Frazier trained for the bout remained a gym for decades. But it was easy for the drab building, wedged between a freeway overpass and a gas station, to slip out of the public eye.

More than 40 years after Ali rapped on the windows, another fight is brewing. The property is for sale, and preservationists are lobbying to save the space and honor an athlete whose grit and kindness inspired a city.

"There's an opportunity here to say that some places are important, even if they're not grand," said Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "History isn't always glamorous."

The trust recently named Frazier's gym one of the country's 11 most endangered historic sites. The list also included a Revolutionary War battlefield, Malcolm X's home in Boston and the Ellis Island hospital complex. The Washington nonprofit chose the sites based on significance, threat to their survival and the possibility of a positive outcome.

The trust will join forces with a group of students from Temple University and the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia to pursue three goals: develop a preservation plan for the property, find a friendly buyer or developer, and raise $10,000 in administrative fees for nominations to the Philadelphia Historical Commission Register and the National Register of Historic Places.

The fight to save the gym began last summer, when Temple adjunct architecture professor Dennis Playdon spotted the "For Sale" signs on his way to work. Playdon had boxed growing up in South Africa, and after 25 years in Philadelphia, he knew the gym.

"Nobody was looking after it," Playdon said. "Nobody cared enough to look after it."

The Broad Ent Group LLC investment group, which declined to comment, had bought the building for $365,000, Realtor Joshua Villwock said. The group made renovations, opened the furniture store and tripled the asking price.

"Of course, we'd love to see the space in the hands of someone who has love and respect for Joe Frazier and what he did for the city," said Villwock, who represents the property. "But in the end, this is about the investors making a sound business decision."

At Playdon's urging, students in his class on architectural preservation dug up old photos, built models and submitted a proposal to the nonprofit Preservation Alliance.

"We hadn't known about the gym — it wasn't on our radar," said John Gallery, the alliance's executive director. "It's very exciting to see this group of twenty-somethings really connecting with Frazier and his heritage, long after his time is over."

Student research revealed the Broad Street building was constructed in the 1890s. In previous incarnations, it had been a window-blind factory, a woodworking shop, a bowling alley — even a dance hall.

Frazier's management company, Cloverlay, bought the building in the late 1960s, according to Joe Hand, a Cloverlay member who acted as an assistant to Frazier. Hand renovated the space into a gym, adding wall-to-wall mirrors, floor-to-ceiling photo murals of Frazier's fights and a practice ring the size of a two-car garage.

Frazier sometimes slept in a spartan apartment above the gym so he could wake up early and keep working out.

"That building meant the world to Joe, and to everybody who knew him," Hand said. "It was such a nice time in my life. In everybody's life."

Hand said Frazier's fitness routine included punching meat carcasses and running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, images found in the boxing movie "Rocky," Hand said.

The boxer was a contrast in and out of the ring, said Philadelphia Daily News sports writer Stan Hochman, who covered Frazier for 48 years. Frazier's punches laid people out cold. But he welcomed the neighborhood into his gym, setting up folding chairs around the ring for three dozen spectators and reporters, Hochman recalled.

The champ bought groceries for widows, and broke his 1964 Olympic gold medal into seven pieces, one for each of his children.

After Frazier retired, he trained younger boxers there, including two of his children. Near the end of his life, he sank into financial chaos and lost the building to foreclosure.

When Frazier died of liver failure last year, overstuffed leather couches for sale in the furniture store had long since replaced the folding chairs that once surrounded his ring.

One sign on the outside of the building reads: "Knockout prices."

laura.nelson@latimes.com

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