Undisputed Champions: Temple students make the case for Smokin' Joe's gym

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story by Molly O'Neill | illustration by Danni SinisiThis article is part of a special editorial partnership with Hidden City Daily on preservation in Philadelphia.Like what you read? Check out the full March 2013 issueand visit Hidden Cityfor more stories on the inspiring preservation work being done in Philadelphia.

In 1971, Philadelphia boxer Joe Frazier won the so-called “Fight of the Century” defeating previously unbeaten and heavily favored Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden. But despite being heavyweight champion, Frazier struggled with the ambivalence of fans, many of whom were ardent supporters of the more transformative Ali.

Now, more than a year after his death, Philadelphians are beginning to reevaluate the boxer’s legacy, with a particular focus on the gym’s positive community impact on North Broad Street, where Frazier touched the lives of hundreds of young men who sought refuge from the streets in the physical training and discipline of boxing.

Last year, Dennis Playdon, a Temple University architecture professor, enlisted his students in preserving the gym, which Frazier was forced to sell in 2008 and now houses a discount furniture store. The students’ work attracted the attention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which named the gym to its 2012 list of most endangered historic places and designated it a “National Treasure.” The National Trust has also commissioned a market study to determine future best uses for the site.

Working with the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, the students have nominated the building to both the Philadelphia and national historic registers. A listing on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places would protect the building from further major alteration or demolition. Eventually though, Playdon would like to see the gym restored to a workout and training center, a use that resonates with Frazier’s legacy. Grid had a chance to talk with Playdon about the project, the “digital gym” the students are creating, and how sustainability plays a role in the gym’s preservation.

How important is the North Broad community to this project?

They loved Joe Frazier. He was like a surrogate father to a lot of people in that area. He was always approachable and helpful when he could be. And [he] was really important to a lot of businesses—he supported people, lent his name to projects and such.

Are there other buildings in Philadelphia important to the 20th century African-American story in Philadelphia?

There’s the John Coltrane House. The Blue Horizon [boxing venue] has recently been closed and it’s being redeveloped in order to keep the Blue Horizon identity, but redeveloped into something else. Another one is the Uptown Theater, which is one of the oldest African-American theaters in the country, [and] housed huge amounts of history. And they are comparable, although the Uptown Theater is quite beautiful inside.

What is the “digital gym” and how will it aid the larger project of preserving the building?

We won a small matching grant from the National Trust to build a website. Architecture students are really good at 3D modeling, and our idea was to put the gym back together virtually. So you could walk inside through the front door and enter the gym as it was and walk around, look at the walls and the pictures and the people. There would be links to news articles and press throughout the website so you could kind of relive what it looked like.

This is another way of preserving the gym; to bring it back to what it was. We’ve had a great deal of luck with the movie [When the Smoke Clears, a documentary on Frazier’s life] that was put out. The photographic director has made available to us all the images. Within the next year we will have our website up.

We’re starting to do oral histories that are stories from the people who knew him. We’re getting interesting stuff. When we had a screening of the film at Temple, so many people came along. Among them were former boxers who had trained at the gym with Frazier, and they were young men dressed in suits, which you don’t get much of in North Philadelphia. They came dressed like that because Frazier told them they couldn’t dress any other way. They had to be upstanding citizens to box at his gym. He insisted on proper manners. He brought these kids up.

What role do nationally recognized historic spaces play in Philadelphia’s sustainability initiatives?

Well, it’s part of Philadelphia’s identity. We have a lot of complaints about the imaginary Rocky, which was based in part on Frazier’s life… The gym is really important to the Frazier identity. The mayor’s office plans to erect a bronze [statue] at the sports stadium, but these are small efforts; the sort of ground zero is the gym. When you have a world champion in your midst, it’s usually an important figure.

Preservation is about taking things forward rather than going backwards. We preserve buildings because they’re part of how we identify ourselves with our city… It’s only recently that the National Trust and preservation organizations have added the category of the importance of cultural identity to preserve buildings.

Sustainability doesn’t stop with materials and things. Sustainability also has to do with the bringing forward of places.  And [that has] to do with all of the people who’ve made the city what it is now. To ignore that and to only think of sustainability [as] materials and climate is to leave out the most important part—the cultural. Preservation is the design of the future. It’s the background we’ve made in order to make the future.