At Joe Frazier's former gym, memories linger

Heavyweight champ Joe Frazier , at right, in the heyday of his gym, just added to the National Register of Historic Places. File
Heavyweight champ Joe Frazier , at right, in the heyday of his gym, just added to the National Register of Historic Places. File
Posted: May 03, 2013

The old brick building at 2917 North Broad Street might be staggering, but the former Joe Frazier's Gym, much like its rugged namesake, has an iron jaw.

Standing in defiant isolation, the structure, which for 42 years housed the famed Philadelphia fighter's training facility, has endured the best shots that age, urban decay, and commercial evolution could deliver.

Finally, earlier this week, with its future very much in question, the building that was Frazier's gym apparently was saved by the bell.

Its newly acquired status on the National Register of Historic Places means the building, which probably dates back to the 1890s, might well avoid the fate of so many of North Philadelphia's historic sporting venues.

"I was so happy to read that news in the paper," said Lamont Hughes, 71, as he stood in line at an adjacent convenience store. "So many things in North Philly are gone away. I'm glad they're going to save Joe's place. He would have wanted that."

Located directly across Broad Street from North Philadelphia Station, where generations of ballplayers bound for nearby Baker Bowl and Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium once disembarked, the former gym stands near what was once the heart of this city's sporting scene.

Two blocks to the south, at Broad and Lehigh, stood Baker Bowl, the Phillies' ballpark from 1887 to 1938. Not far west, at 21st and Lehigh, was Shibe Park/Connie Mack Stadium, home of the Phillies and the Athletics. And a little south of the gym on Broad, the compact Blue Horizon was a legendary fight arena.

The ballparks have been demolished, and the Blue Horizon is no longer a boxing venue.

"North Philly was always crazy for sports - still is, really," said Lattimore Simmons, 74, a lifelong resident. "I remember when Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers used to come in. We used to wait right there at the station for their train. Then we'd all walk down Lehigh Avenue to Shibe Park to watch them play."

For all that has disappeared, though, the intersection of Broad Street and Glenwood Avenue is still a busy one. As Simmons and Hughes spoke Wednesday morning, dozens of workers en route to Temple Hospital or the nearby Social Security Administration facility scurried past. Above the hum of Broad Street's morning traffic, a SEPTA train rumbled across a bridge that cast morning shadows on the former boxing gym below.

But litter, the frequent wail of police sirens, and the decaying ghosts of factories infuse the neighborhood with an aura of hopelessness. Frazier, the old men said, provided some pride for a neighborhood badly in need of some.

"He might have been heavyweight champion of the world, but he never forgot about us," said Hughes.

Throughout the decades he owned the gym, they said, Frazier helped out needy residents, financially and otherwise.

When Frazier, ailing with the liver cancer that would kill him a year later, shuttered the place in 2010, North Philadelphia lost a valuable ally.

"In talking to people, I really got the sense that Frazier was a neighborhood guy who touched everyone around there," said Dennis Playdon, the Temple professor who led the preservation efforts. "Everyone seems to have a story about him."

Both Hughes and Simmons said they had met Frazier often, that he'd occasionally invite them into his gym to watch the street-tough fighters Philadelphia once produced like soft pretzels.

"Used to love guys like Bennie Briscoe and Gypsy Joe [Harris]," said Hughes. "A lot of them trained right here. I'm not sure what's going to become of the place, but I know I've missed it these past couple years. It was something positive."

The broad-faced building long ago lost its adjacent structures. It's now flanked by a vacant lot and a gas station.

"Surprised they haven't knocked it down, too," said Simmons of the former gym.

Playdon has not been able to unearth an original building permit for the structure, but has found evidence that suggests it was constructed in the 1890s. Among other incarnations, it's been a millwork, a warehouse, and a ballroom.

Five years after his financial backers, Cloverlay Inc., opened the gym for Frazier, the fighter purchased and renamed it in 1973. It's now occupied by a discount furniture store where an etched pair of boxing gloves are visible over the main entrance.

Playdon and his Temple architecture students began the preservation effort after the professor heard that it had closed. The Heritage Consulting Group, a professional consulting group, continued the process.

As welcome as the National Register status was, it does not preclude demolition, said Ben Leech of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

"To provide further protection," Leech said, "the Preservation Alliance has taken the additional step of nominating the building to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places."

That matter will be considered at May 29 and June 14 meetings of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. If approved, Leech said, it would then have protection against demolition.

Even if that happens, though, there's no guarantee the structure will resume its boxing role.

A Playdon-led effort to convert it into a boxing museum, along with several similar ideas, "have gone nowhere yet," the professor noted. In the meantime, with funding from Temple and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, he and his students are constructing a website that will provide Internet visitors with a virtual tour.

"Ideally, it should be returned to being a gym," said Playdon, who became a fan of Frazier's in the 1970s. "It should also be on some kind of tourist route. There are a lot of interesting sites around there. But at least our digital model will let people see what the place was like in its heyday."


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com. Follow @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz", at www.philly.com/fitz

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