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Future of 12th Street Gym and its mural in doubt in Philly's Gayborhood

The gym, facing financial difficulties, is deciding whether it can afford to stay open. And everyone's wondering: What will happen to the mural of beloved LGBT activist Gloria Casarez?

The 12th Street Gym has been around for more than three decades. The mural outside it was added in 2015.
The 12th Street Gym has been around for more than three decades. The mural outside it was added in 2015.Read moreMichael Boren

Whether the iconic 12th Street Gym in Philadelphia's Gayborhood can remain open may come down to the cost of fire doors.

Although some work has been done since 2016, when the Department of Licenses and Inspections found at least a dozen code violations throughout the building that houses the gym — the building also has office space — other costly ones still exist. The additional work, such as installing the doors to slow the spread of flames, may run at least $500,000, according to the gym's owner, Frank Baer.

He is now in negotiations with the building's new landlord, which took over last month, to decide whether the gym can continue operating.

"We're just reevaluating at this point," he said. A decision, he said, could be reached as soon as next week.

The uncertainty has Gayborhood business owners and residents speculating about the future of the building. Some have worried that, were the gym to close, the building could be demolished — along with the giant mural honoring LGBT activist Gloria Casarez. Midwood Investment & Development L.L.C., which owns the building, declined to comment this week.

The gym has 4,000 members — former Mayor Nutter was one — and has been around for more than 30 years, acting as both a workout spot and a meeting place for people of different ages, ethnicities and economic backgrounds, Baer said. It's one of the sponsors of Philly Pride Presents, the group that organizes the annual Pride parade and Outfest block party, and is known for collaborating with neighboring groups and businesses.

"The gym has gone out of its way consistently to support the community," said Jeff Sotland, whose neighboring bar, Tabu, has been advertised on posters in the gym. "It's like Grand Central for a lot of people."

Paul Struck, a former member who now operates a massage therapy office in the same building, said he has always viewed the gym as one of the most cost-effective workout facilities in Center City. He used to walk there from his apartment just a few blocks away.

"If 12th Street closed," he said, "I think it would be really, really missed in the neighborhood."

The mural of Casarez on the gym's facade was put up in 2015. Casarez, who died of cancer a year earlier, was the city's first director of LGBT affairs and is credited for cultivating Philadelphia's reputation as one of the nation's most LGBT-friendly cities.

Casarez' friends helped design the mural.

"It's become very much a fabric of the neighborhood and the community," said Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, which has put up thousands of murals on buildings across the city. The Casarez mural was meant to be permanent, Golden said. Were the gym to be demolished, she said Mural Arts would try to recreate the mural in another spot.

The gym has said it will continue to honor membership contracts. The University of the Arts, which partners with the gym to offer students discounted memberships, said it is keeping an eye on the situation. The university also holds intramural basketball and dodgeball games at the gym and may have to move them elsewhere if it closes.

L&I spokeswoman Karen Guss said the gym has until the end of 2020 to finish the repairs needed to address the fire code violations.

"I understand that there are these financial difficulties, and that's obviously very unfortunate. The 12th Street Gym has a long important history in that community," Guss said. But, she added, "fire code stuff's pretty serious, and it can't just not be addressed."