Joe Frazier's Gym gets historic status

Posted: May 02, 2013

Jesse Hart said it took just one look around Joe Frazier's old boxing gym on North Broad Street as a wide-eyed 8-year-old to become inspired.

Huge portraits of Frazier covered the walls, the champion's old robes hung in a back room, and the city's fiercest fighters trained in his ring.

This was a place, Hart said, where a man came from nothing to become a world champion. It inspired Hart, now a professional super middleweight, to chase his dreams.

On Tuesday, the site of Frazier's gym was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The status will help preserve the building, now a discount furniture store that advertises "knockout prices." The owners must consult the National Park Service before any major remodeling is done with federal aid. Even without aid, the owners would be expected to seek the Park Service's advice regarding any changes.

Frazier died of liver cancer in November 2011. The city finalized plans last week to erect a Frazier statue at Xfinity Live! near the South Philadelphia sports complex.

The designation as a historic place came in large part because of the efforts of a Temple University instructor and his architecture students.

In the summer before Frazier's death, Temple adjunct professor Dennis Playdon noticed a "For Sale" sign as he drove past Frazier's gym, which had closed in 2008. A longtime boxing fan from South Africa, Playdon was preparing to teach a historic preservation course.

His students had a case study.

To draw attention to the gym, they worked to have it added to the city's list of endangered properties. In June, the site was added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's endangered list. However, the gym's inclusion on those lists brought no guarantees of preservation.

They crafted the application for the National Register of Historic Places and submitted it earlier this year with the hope of the site turning back into a gym or training center.

Playdon could not be reached for comment.

The gym is the 613th Philadelphia site to be nationally registered as a historic place. Among others are Carpenters', Central High School, and Friends Hospital.

Located near Broad Street and Glenwood Avenue, Frazier's gym was the first place that the 23-year-old Hart trained. His father, former middleweight Eugene "Cyclone" Hart, wanted to introduce him to the family business.

The gym had its ambience. A photo of Frazier and his German shepherd running in Fairmount Park hung near a picture of the former heavyweight champ and his 11 children. In the second-floor office was a huge photo of Frazier's 1971 knockdown of Muhammad Ali in "The Fight of the Century."

Above the long mirror, where fighters jumped rope against the hardwood floor, was the picture that Jesse Hart remembered most: a smiling Frazier, wearing a white suit, with his arm around his longtime trainer, Yank Durham.

"That showed what type of guy Joe was," said Hart, who is undefeated in six fights. "He was loyal to the end. Yank wasn't just a trainer to Joe. He was a father figure."

The gym opened in 1968 as the Cloverlay Gym and was owned by an association of businessmen who sponsored Frazier after he won a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics. Frazier bought the gym five years later and renamed it after himself.

The former ballroom with high ceilings drew fighters from the Police Athletic League Gym at 22d Street and Columbia Avenue, where Frazier first trained.

Bobby "Boogaloo" Watts, Willie "The Worm" Monroe, and Bennie Briscoe joined Cyclone Hart at Frazier's Gym, taking part in Philadelphia's historic "gym wars."

"It was a standout place," longtime city trainer and ABC Gym owner Fred Jenkins said. "The experience you gained from watching those gym wars was top-notch."

Outside the ring, Frazier was a humble champion. He taught a young Jesse Hart how to dissect fight videos and cosigned the loan for Cyclone Hart to open his own gym in the 1990s.

Jesse Hart remembered walking to school one day when Frazier's white Cadillac pulled to the curb.

"Get inside," Frazier told him. "I'll drive you the rest of the way."

Frazier dropped him off at FitzSimons High, handed him a $50 bill for lunch, and told him he would see him at the gym in the afternoon.

"He told me to always stay focused, never lose that focus, and you'll get there," Hart said. "I still always think of that."


>Inquirer.com

Photographs of Joe Frazier capture the iconic Phila. fighter - and his gym - through the years. www.inquirer.com/frazier


Contact Matt Breen at mbreen@phillynews.com and @matt_breen on Twitter.

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