Buildings crumble and die virtually daily, and some are so important to the people of the city that their loss is a source of great pain. But historic preservation is usually debated around issues of aesthetics and architectural history, not tattered holes in the community or the cultural fabric.
This year, however, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia is making an important shift in its ninth annual Endangered Properties List.
In this list, communities count.
So it is that Joe Frazier's Gym on North Broad Street and the old Chinese Cultural and Community Center on North 10th Street in Chinatown make the alliance's list, announced Thursday. The rowhouses of jazz great John Coltrane and printmaker Dox Thrash are also highlighted, along with five other buildings in Philadelphia neighborhoods.
Some of the sites are well known, such as Frazier's Gym, where the former heavyweight champ trained fighters for decades, but that now has a furniture store on the ground floor and looks to an uncertain future. The Royal Theater on South Street is also well known and has been the focus of preservation efforts going back more than a quarter of a century.
John Gallery, head of the preservation alliance, said the list was focused not on properties that reflect traditional architectural values, but on "the events, activities, and people associated with these places." It is, he said, the only way for historic preservation to have meaning within the city as a whole.
Lenora Early, who is struggling to get her nonprofit organization off the ground and rehabilitate and run the John Coltrane House at 1511 N. 33d St. in Strawberry Mansion, pointed out that Coltrane lived in the neighborhood for most of the 1950s. His ownership of the house until his death in 1967 speaks to the history of the city as a whole, she said, and to Coltrane's place within the history of jazz and black America.
The house is a National Historic Landmark but is in urgent need of repairs. An adjacent house "has been pulling on our house," Early said, leading to deterioration of the Coltrane facade.
Early's late husband, a jazz aficionado, bought the Coltrane house some years ago with the idea of preserving it and transforming it into a facility dedicated to the history and legacy of the saxophonist and composer. Stabilizing the structure, however, is the first priority, Early said.
The Joe Frazier Gym, which was closed in 2008 and sold to an overseas investor, is vacant but for the ground-floor furniture store.
Frazier, who died last month, bought the building in 1967 and hoped in his later years to convert it into a boxing museum. But only his faded name on the facade speaks to his legacy - in a town that has a statue of a make-believe boxer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Dennis Playdon, an architecture professor at Temple University, who has focused a preservation course on the Frazier Gym, said he wanted to create a digital version of the building. The virtual gym would capture its look and contain stories associated with its rich history.
So far, Playdon said, the gym owners "haven't been keen on us doing any measurements or going forward with any nominations" to the Philadelphia or national historic registers.
"The bottom line has been, it's bad for business if [the owners] can't change the building," Playdon said.
"I believe we could get it on the [Philadelphia] register eventually, and the national register, and preserve it as the legendary place it is," he said.
The alliance notes that placing the gym on the Philadelphia register "would help protect the physical building, while honoring one of the city's great citizens."
The Chinese Cultural and Community Center, once a focal point of activity in Chinatown, also faces a clouded future. The building, which has a facade assembled from elements of the Chinese Pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Expo, sits vacant.
In 1955, T.T. Chang established a YMCA in the center, and for many years it served as a hub for language, cooking, and education classes. It was also the site of the community's traditional New Year's banquet. Chang's death in 1996 inaugurated a period of decline.
John Chin, head of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., said many in his group were concerned about the building's fate.
"We have members here talking about preserving the building and rehabbing it for future use," he said. But until a vision of the future emerges, he said, it remains at risk. It is not on the Philadelphia register.
Also on the Endangered Properties List:
The Royal Theater, on the 1500 block of South Street, was the city's first and biggest movie palace catering to African Americans when it was built in 1920. Pearl Bailey, Bessie Smith, and Cab Calloway performed there, but it has been vacant since 1970. The Royal has been the focus of numerous preservation and development disputes over the years and is currently owned by Kenny Gamble's Universal Cos. Deterioration over decades of vacancy has accelerated, and the alliance contends that recent proposals for development suggest the possibility of the demolition of the building, excluding the South Street facade. A spokeswoman for Universal did not respond to requests for comment.
The Jacob and Ethel Stiffel Senior Center, 604 W. Porter St., built in 1928, served thousands of Jewish immigrants in its early days in South Philadelphia and, more recently, welcomed non-Jews as well until it was closed earlier this year by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. It is vacant, has been listed for sale, and is not on the Philadelphia register.
The Dox Thrash House, 2340 Cecil B. Moore Ave., was the home of the great innovative and influential African American printmaker from 1945 until his death in 1965. The house is vacant.
The Spring Garden Post Office mural at Seventh and Thompson Streets was painted in 1937 by Walter Gardner, who painted and taught art, but who was also night office manager at the old Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. The U.S. Postal Service has slated this office for closure as part of national retrenchment of operations.
The Kensington Soup Society building at 1036 Crease St. was sold to a private developer in 2008 and now sits vacant. From 1870 to 2008, the building served as a mecca for the neighborhood's poor and hungry, distributing soup and, until 1963, coal. It is not on the local register.
The New Frankford Y, operating in an 1866 mansion at 4704 Lieper St. since 1941, closed in 2009 and is now vacant. There has been some talk of demolition, the alliance says. The building is not on the local register and is currently slated for sheriff's sale.