Adjunct professor Dennis Playdon said he’s been studying the preservation of architecture for “all of his adult life.”
Growing up, he studied in South Africa at a boarding school that he said doubled as a boxing school, where students listened to Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali fights on the radio and hosted their own boxing tournaments in their spare time. Playdon taught architecture at the University of Pennsylvania from 1988 to 1997 before preserving architecture with an Indian tribe in Santa Fe, N.M., for five years.
He returned to Philadelphia in 2008 to teach at Temple, where his wife M. Katherine Wingert-Playdon soon became chair of the architecture department.
So when Playdon, while driving to Main Campus in August 2011, saw a “For Sale” sign on the façade of Frazier’s old gym on North Broad Street, he decided he wanted to use a class he was teaching to preserve the gym.
“My first thought was ‘How could this be?’” Playdon said. “I was going to take a picture of it and send it to all of the sports magazines in the country, but I didn’t because I was busy with the class at the beginning of the semester. I thought, ‘I’ll give it to the class. Let’s see what we can do about it.’”
Through a year-long effort, Playdon and his students had the gym registered on local and national historical building preservation lists and are continuing their efforts this year to preserve the forgotten North Philadelphia landmark.
Frazier’s gym became operational at its location at 2917 N. Broad St. in 1969, five years after Frazier won a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics. Frazier trained at the gym for all three of his historic bouts against Ali during the early 1970s while living in an apartment on the building’s top floor.
Following his retirement from boxing in 1976, Frazier ran the gym as a community center within the North Philadelphia neighborhood. Frazier lost the gym to back taxes in 2008 and died in November 2011 due to complications from liver cancer.
In the first semester of introduction to architecture preservation in Fall 2011, Playdon and students successfully had Frazier’s gym, now a used furniture store with an owner not interested in preservation, registered on The Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia’s Endangered Properties List.
The list essentially acts as a public relations vessel, drawing attention to the problems and spreading awareness of the historical significance of the buildings placed on it, Ben Leech, director of advocacy at the Preservation Alliance, said.
“We use it as a tool to generate more attention to these sites and promote them with the hope that preservation-minded buyers or the public will become more aware of them,” Leech said. “It’s a vehicle for increased attention. It has no legal binding or financial implication.”
The listing got the attention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which placed the gym on its annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in a June 2012 announcement made on Main Campus at the new architecture building. The gym is the third building in Philadelphia’s history to be named to such list, and the National Trust has since declared the gym a National Treasure.
A three-way partnership dedicated to restoring the gym formed when the Preservation Alliance introduced the efforts at Temple to restore it to the National Trust at the end of Spring 2012 semester. The partnership is what led to the gym being named to the National Trust’s exclusive list, Playdon said.
“It got on a national level when the National Trust approached me through the Preservation Alliance to continue to help us with the preservation of the gym,” Playdon said. “They invited us to form a partnership.”
“What the national trust felt is that what’s really at risk is [the building’s] loss of association with Joe Frazier,” Leech said. “Its existence indefinitely as a furniture store will lead to the loss of the tangible reminder of who Joe Frazier was to the neighborhood and to the city.”
Senior architectural preservation major Matthew Ferris, who, along with two classmates, penned the nomination that was accepted by the Preservation Alliance in Fall 2011, said it’s been rewarding to see how far the project has come.
“It was really great to see that a small effort from Temple students and faculty has brought so much attention to this site, which is so important to the North Philadelphia area,” Ferris said.
This year, Playdon and his new introduction to architecture class are working on getting the gym registered with local and national historic site organizations. A nomination to the Philadelphia Registrar of Historic Places is being finalized by the Preservation Alliance and will be sent next month, a move that Playdon said is the next step toward preserving the building’s physical character.
“It protects the building on the outside legally,” Playdon said. “Once it gets that status, it becomes a protected property. You can’t demolish it. You can’t change the façade. You can change the inside, but not the outside.”
“The Philadelphia Registrar is the only designation that actually carries legal protection, so we felt that was the most appropriate first step,” Leech said. “We are also pursuing a national nomination, but that requires a preservation-minded owner.”
Senior architecture major Ann Dinh and architecture graduate student Michael Baker, alumni of Playdon’s introduction class, wrote the nomination for the Philadelphia Registrar during the summer.
“With the gym, since the preservation isn’t about the architecture but rather the person behind the gym, it’s a little bit more difficult to find information on,” Dinh said. “But overall, it was a very good learning experience.”
“We just elaborated on what [Ferris] had done,” Baker said. “In trying to get the application squared away, we worked more on the biography, the history of the building and hitting all of the bullet points for why it should be preserved.”
Since the building is occupied and all of the remnants of Frazier’s gym are literally in a warehouse somewhere, Playdon said he also wants to restore the gym virtually in case it can’t be refurnished to look like it did in Frazier’s heyday.
“We thought to recreate the gym in a 3-D model, which is interactive, and make it a website,” Playdon said. “So you can go into the model and wander around and have a look, as it was. Then you could link onto movies, interviews and press releases on Joe Frazier.”
Playdon estimates the cost of such a project to be approximately $10,000, but he and his students have received very little outside funding. Temple was accepted for a grant from the National Trust for an amount that Playdon wouldn’t disclose, but said it wasn’t nearly enough to fund what he wants to accomplish this year.
“It’s barely enough to build a website, that kind of low number,” Playdon said. “But we can get something up this year. It won’t be interactive, but it can be a model with information. We will go for more grants to make it into an interactive system.”
“We need something just to cover costs, because I personally carried it through the summer,” Playdon added.
The Preservation Alliance is currently not invested financially in Temple’s project, Leech said. If the class were to receive additional funding, it would come from outside the three-way partnership, Playdon said.
“If we have other sources, it wouldn’t be a grant it would be an outright gift,” Playdon said. “While this was all happening I got contacted by the boxing world a lot. There are boxers, both current and retired, who might be able to contribute to the gym this way.”
Broad Enterprise Group purchased the property in May 2011 and put the gym back up for sale after its status with the National Trust restricted any physical transformation of the building. Ferris said finding a sympathetic buyer is an important next step in the process. The building has a market value of $126,000, according to the city’s Office of Property Assessment records.
“There is a darker side to preservation where they say you don’t need consent of the owners of the building, and that can ruffle quite a few feathers,” Ferris said. “You have to pick your fights carefully and respect the privacy of owners while you go about your documentation.”
Temple’s efforts are part of a larger movement toward improving Frazier’s image in Philadelphia following his death last fall. Mayor Michael Nutter announced on Sept. 12 that a statue of Frazier’s likeness will be erected at Xfinity Live! by the Sports Complex in South Philadelphia next year, a move that Playdon said is long overdue to honor a man who was a heavyweight inside the ring and out.
“I love talking to people about the gym and what it was like there,” Playdon said. “They all talk about Frazier and his presence in the community. He was like a father to everybody. He looked after people. He helped a lot of people. He was always kind and supportive – that was his character.”
Joey Cranney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @joey_cranney.