National Treasures

[Interview] Mike Todd, Filmmaker: Documenting Joe Frazier’s Gym

Posted on: October 11th, 2012 by Julia Rocchi


UPDATE: The National Trust for Historic Preservation and its preservation partners hosted a film screening of the documentary, “Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears,” at Temple University in fall 2012 that received an overwhelming response from attendees. The film about Frazier’s life that spotlights the importance of saving his gym in Philadelphia resonated with students, faculty, local preservationists and community activists alike.

In an effort to reach a wider audience with the film and raise funds to support preservation of the gym, the National Trust entered into an agreement Kultur International Films LTD., Inc. recently, in which the National Trust receives a portion of the proceeds from sales of the documentary DVD.

The National Trust will receive 40 percent of the discounted sale price ($17.99), or $7.20, on any sale of the DVD. Visit Kultur to watch a clip of the film or purchase a DVD. Enter the unique code “JFNT” to support us in protecting an iconic historic site and receive a discount on purchase of the DVD.

After watching the film, share your stories and thoughts on our Saving Places website.

It’s an old-fashioned story: the local boxing gym that becomes a community hub and plays an important role in its neighborhood. Can such a place still exist in the 21st century? Documentary filmmaker Mike Todd believes it can -- and considers boxing legend Joe Frazier a prime example of how to make it work.

Todd’s latest film, Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears, delves into Frazier’s relationship with his Philadelphia community through the lens of his world-famous gym, which he ran for more than 40 years with his son Marvis. Todd says, “I was interested in what motivated Joe to keep it open. He had devoted his life to it and built up a lot of community goodwill. It was amazing to see him still sitting behind the desk.”

But as often happens with documentary filmmaking, the inspirational story Todd started to tell was soon overtaken by history. As the filmmakers worked to raise funding and interest for their project, the gym was facing its own financial difficulties. Then Frazier passed away in 2011, and the gym closed for good.

Todd remembers, “We could see this important, iconic place slipping away. We as filmmakers wanted to step in. We did outreach to see if someone could take over its administration to help out. Surely someone, somewhere, would step in. Marvis and Joe wanted to keep it going. But that didn’t work.”

Director Mike Todd (l.) jokes around with boxing legend Joe Frazier (r.) at the gym.

The good news is, hope is on the horizon for Joe Frazier’s Gym. Named a National Treasure this year, the National Trust is collaborating with Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and Temple University’s School of Architecture to designate the modest three-story building as both a local and national landmark. It’s also working to find a preservation-friendly buyer for the property.

On Tuesday, October 16, the National Trust is organizing a screening of the film in Philadelphia with a complementary panel discussion to follow (event details here). In advance of the event, we sat down with Todd to learn more about his filming experience and reflect on what the building -- and Joe Frazier himself -- meant to him.

What went through your mind when you first entered Joe Frazier’s gym?

On one hand, it felt like a really important, iconic place with historic photos everywhere. But on the other hand, it felt like a community center. Kids were running around. It was a safe place where people had respect for each other. Joe’s name was on the door, and people knew they could go there to have space and freedom from the pressures of North Philadelphia (even if they never became famous boxers). You see so many celebrities who associate themselves with charitable work only for public relations value, but Joe did it with no recognition and his own money.

Who did you encounter in the course of filming that had connections to the space?

Oh, there were so many stories. People went to train there. People were mentored there -- not just in boxing, but in other opportunities outside the gym (job training, for example). If you were prepared to work hard and were motivated, and wanted a way out of the circumstances you were given, the gym was there to help you.

One great example is Richard Slone. He’s an artist, originally from England. He wanted to be a boxer, and every week until he turned 16 he would call Marvis and Joe, because his dream was to train with them. Marvis always encouraged and supported him. So when he finally turned 16, Slone came to Philly to train. He had nothing when he arrived, and ended up living in the back of gym. He became like a son to Marvis and Joe, who looked after him for 10 years.

Meanwhile, Slone was sketching pictures there at the gym. Marvis said to him, “You may never be a boxer, but you can be an artist.” Now Slone is one of the most successful sports artists in America.

Joe Frazier and his son Marvis pose at the gym.

What would losing Joe Frazier’s Gym mean to the neighborhood? To the sports community? To the world?

When we were 2.5 years into filming, the gym closed. Renovations weren’t going to solve anything; it was just stalling time. Marvis was still trying to find a benefactor, but with no success. The gym was slipping through the cracks, much like Joe did. When he passed away, the world remembered who he was. It was so clear how iconic he’d been, but in later years was unrecognized. The work the gym did in the community wasn’t recognized either.

You have to look at Joe’s life in a 20th century U.S. context. Joe’s story says something about the United States and its history, but also speaks to an international audience as symbol of hard work, dedication, and perseverance. There’s meaning and investment in the gym -- it was a beacon of hope.

To lose the gym would be a lost opportunity for the city. He’s a truly remarkable figure. Anyone would be proud to say Joe Frazier lived and ran a gym in their city. You can still preserve the legacy of what it meant, and it’s a story that can still inspire people.

If the building can be preserved and help people remember who Joe Frazier was and what he did -- both as a sportsman and a person engaged in community issues where others had turned their backs -- even posthumous recognition would be amazing. We want Joe to get the recognition he deserves.

How can your film help the cause to save the building?

In May 2011, Joe came to the preview cut in New York City. It was great we got to see the film with him. I even did a Q&A session with him. At the end, the audience gave him a standing ovation. In retrospect, it was great he got to see the story our film tells and why he deserves our respect. (He liked it, too!)

Our film can help raise awareness of why what Joe did there is still relevant -- that his life and the history he represents are still relevant. In that respect, it would be a fantastic achievement to keep the gym open as a place that provides a space for the community, as well as a museum about Joe and the civil rights movement of that era. It is a place linked to the most dramatic years of his life; I think it would be a place people would visit.

Quenell Jones films Joe Frazier in action at the gym.

What’s your dream for the future of Joe Frazier’s Gym?

Seeing the gym included on the 11 Most Endangered list this year proved its importance. It captured the public’s imagination. Our film captured those final years, and we captured that history. I just feel there’s a lot more to run with this -- it’s not sunk in how meaningful this issue can be.

My dream is to see the gym as a place where Joe is remembered, to make it a tribute to Joe’s achievements and what he dedicated his life to. If it can still inspire people locally, nationally and even internationally, then it will truly celebrate Joe’s life and capture what the gym represented.

“Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears” is available from FilmBuff on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube Rentals, Cinemanow, Vudu, and XBOX. You can also contribute to the campaign to save Joe Frazier’s Gym at

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the associate director for digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.


If you’ve had a chance to check out Preservation magazine’s Fall issue cover story, you know that most of the damage incurred at the Washington National Cathedral during the August 2011 earthquake was to the high stone pinnacles and towers.

Though I'm not afraid of much, I am definitely afraid of heights. But in spite of that, when I was offered the opportunity to take a look at the damage -- and the preservation progress -- up close, my immediate answer was, “I’m in.”

It was cool to go behind (above?) the scenes and see how much progress has been made since we last visited in April. Here is a photo gallery of my favorite details and views from my most recent visit:

To learn more about the preservation and restoration work ongoing at the Washington National Cathedral, or to donate to help with repair and preservation expenses, visit

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Dennis Hockman

Dennis Hockman

Dennis Hockman is editor in chief of Preservation magazine. He’s lived all over the United States but currently resides in Baltimore where he is restoring a 1918 center hall Colonial.

César E. Chávez Site Declared a National Monument

Posted on: October 9th, 2012 by Gwendolyn Purdom 1 Comment


In front of a jubilant crowd of thousands yesterday morning, President Obama declared the home of labor leader César Chávez and the national headquarters of the United Farm Workers Union a National Monument.

The Keene, Calif. site, known as Nuestra Senora Reina de La Paz (or simply La Paz), is closely associated with unprecedented gains Chávez and the union secured between 1970 and 1984. Upon his death in 1993, Chávez was buried at La Paz.

“The National Trust for Historic Preservation believes the designation of a César Chávez National Monument is an important first step toward a more comprehensive celebration of the life and legacy of César Chávez and his contributions to the farm labor movement,” National Trust President Stephanie Meeks said in a statement. “We applaud the President’s selection of the La Paz property as a National Monument. La Paz is one of several historic sites identified by the National Park Service related to César Chávez that depicts an important but underrepresented aspect of our nation’s history.”

The César E. Chávez National Monument is the fourth national monument the President has designated. The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president authority to designate monuments as a way to protect “objects of historic or scientific interest.” During his administration, President Obama has also designated national monuments at Fort Ord in California, as well as Virginia’s Fort Monroe and Colorado’s Chimney Rock, both National Trust National Treasures.

A total of 16 presidents and Congress have used the Act to establish more than 100 national monuments, with Bill Clinton creating the most (19). George W. Bush designated six during his administration, including Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the largest national monument at nearly 90 million acres. These sites are managed by various agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the Forest Service.

The designation of La Paz is especially timely, Meeks pointed out, as it is occurring during National Hispanic Heritage Month. In her statement, she also emphasized that the National Trust is committed to continuing collaborative work with the National Park Service and its American Latino Heritage Initiative.

“Today, La Paz joins a long line of national monuments -- stretching from the Statue of Liberty to the Grand Canyon -- monuments that tell the story of who we are as Americans,” President Obama said at yesterday’s ceremony. “It's a story of natural wonders and modern marvels; of fierce battles and quiet progress. But it's also a story of people -- of determined, fearless, hopeful people who have always been willing to devote their lives to making this country a little more just and a little more free.”

César Chávez's memorial garden and burial site.

National Trust Advisor Luis G. Hoyos attended yesterday’s ceremony in Keene and said: “I noticed a lot of us were Latinos, of course; we come in all shapes and sizes. But on a closer look I saw old Latinos, men, veterans, what appeared to be former farm workers, dressed modestly and hanging on to canes, wheelchairs, a wife, a banner of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Those faces will be with me for some time.”

Also in attendance was National Trust Advisor Donna Graves, who commented: “Hats, t-shirts and buttons among the crowd testified to long-standing commitment to labor organizing and the United Farm Workers. President Obama’s appearance swelled the heartfelt joy of many gathered in knowing that finally their herencia, their heritage, was being honored at the highest level.

And for the National Trust’s vice president of historic sites, Estevan Rael-Gálvez, attending the dedication ceremony was moving professionally and personally:

“As I breathed in the air of La Paz at the end of the day, I remembered that back home, elders always remind us that ‘wherever we go, we leave our breath behind us.’ The spirit of this place -- surrounded by rolling hills, nearly 200 acres, 26 buildings and structures that were/are home and headquarters for the United Farm Workers and their families -- can equally be felt in the breath of those who remain dedicated to the work of social justice and those whose breath has been left behind as well. Chávez was certainly there today; he was in the slope of the hills, the dust from the road, and he was in the hands and faces of every individual who has ever longed for civil rights and social justice.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Chimney Rock to be Designated a National Monument

Posted on: September 19th, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment


Today, we learned that the 4,726-acre Puebloan ancestral landscape in the mountains of southwestern Colorado known as Chimney Rock will reportedly be designated a National Monument by President Obama this Friday.

The roughly 1,000-year-old remains of a Chacoan Indian settlement, Chimney Rock will be the third National Monument established by President Obama and joins the likes of the Statue of Liberty and the Grand Canyon. Of great spiritual significance to more than 20 Pueblos and other Native American tribes, it is one of the most culturally significant places managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

“Chimney Rock helps us understand the story of the Chacoans, ancestors of modern Pueblo Indians, most of whom do not have a written history,” says Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Their history is written on the landscape, in the structures and in traditional cultural practices at places like Chimney Rock.”

More than 200 residential, ceremonial, and other structures were built on the mesa overlooking the two stone spires known as Chimney Rock and Companion Rock. A multi-story structure known as the Great House Pueblo was likely built specifically for viewing the moon rise directly between the spires during the lunar standstill, an astrological event that occurs every 18.6 years.

The Chacoans, who are believed to be among North America’s first farmers, also used the spires and their own buildings to track the sun and calculate the onset of the short growing season.

The effort to designate Chimney Rock as a National Monument began in 2009, and over the next several years, Colorado congressional members in both the House and Senate sponsored bills on its behalf.

As a continued disagreement in the Senate over public lands legislation again stymied success this spring, Colorado senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, along with Representative Scott Tipton, sent a letter asking President Obama to begin discussions with the local community about the use of his powers under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate the monument.

The area was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and since 1988 has been maintained by the Forest Service. The Chimney Rock Interpretative Association, a small group of volunteers, was granted with a special use permit by the Forest Service to help maintain the area, perform archeological work, and give public tours each year between May 15 and September 30.

The designation will likely provide additional funding for the site’s preservation and further protect the site from development with a legal preservation mandate.

Addressing the benefits of today’s news, Senator Bennet also pointed out that “tourism is one of [Colorado’s] leading economic drivers, and (the) National Monument designation for Chimney Rock (will) provide a tremendous boost for the economy in the region.”

A study released by the Trust in early July supports Senator Bennet’s statement, indicating that following national monument designation, the number of annual visitors to the site will likely grow from an average of 12,000 to 24,000 over the next five years and will contribute $2.4 million to the local economy annually.

“In a very tangible way, preserving Chimney Rock helps to weave our multicultural nation together,” says Meeks.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Full Speed Ahead: The Storied History of the Nantucket Lightship

Posted on: August 31st, 2012 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment


Written by Laura Wainman, Editorial Intern

In 1936, shipbuilders Pusey & Jones built a lightship to replace the ill-fated, 630-ton Nantucket/LV-117. The ship had been struck on May 15, 1934 by the Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic -- a luxury liner that was nearly 75 times larger than the Nantucket.  Four of the 11-man crew died instantly and three others died later from critical injuries and exposure. As reparation, the British government paid the US $500,000, and along came the Nantucket/LV-112 (one of our National Treasures).

Seeing as it was replacing a lightship that had been cut in half, and would be stationed in the most exposed, remote, and dangerous lightship station on the East Coast (known as a “graveyard of the Atlantic”), LV-112 was built to the specifications of a battleship. At 149 feet long, 1,050 tons, with a double hull made of nearly 1.5-inch armor plating and 43 watertight compartments, it was one of the largest U.S. lightships ever built; built to be virtually unsinkable.

For 39 years, longer than any other Nantucket lightship, LV-112 guided transoceanic traffic, including the Queen Mary, Normandie, and the SS United States, through the dangerous Nantucket shoals. The shoals had been the cause of more than 700 shipwrecks over the years, and even prevented the Mayflower from reaching her original destination at the mouth of the Hudson River.

Crews were required to stay aboard, regardless of weather, and the ship managed to weather hundreds of brutal storms. But no storm was worse than Hurricane Edna in 1954. LV-112 endured 110-mph winds and 70-foot seas which broke the ship’s anchor chain, lifeboats, and life rafts. Its signature safety features, lights and an ear-piercing foghorn, were rendered useless, as water spilled into the smoke stacks and put out the fires in the engine boiler room.

Meanwhile, fires broke out all over the ship. The crew managed to plug holes in the hull with extraneous debris, extinguish the fires, and throw out the spare anchor in order to control the ship long enough to get the ship back to its station. LV-112 finished its shift that night, and was taken in for repair the next day. Once again, she had prevailed in perilous circumstances.

In 1942, LV-112 took a brief break from its station at Nantucket Shoals in order to aid the United States in World War II efforts. Lights, bells, and fog signals were removed to make the ship more stealthy and its vibrant red exterior was painted battleship grey. Two machine guns were installed on its foredeck and a gun was mounted on the fantail.

Renamed the USS Nantucket, the ship was stationed in Portland, Maine for three years. When a German U-Boat managed to enter its territory and sink the USS Eagle-56, the Nantucket helped to save the crewmembers in distress.

Thirty-seven years after it was decommissioned, LV-112 still faces an uphill battle. The ship had been passed from owner to owner since 1975, and maintenance needs had fallen by the wayside, despite being designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989. In October 2009, the ship finally caught a break when the United States Lightship Museum (USLM) purchased LV-112  for $1 and began preparations to tow it home to Boston.

For seven months, volunteers at USLM spent their weekends commuting from Massachusetts and New Hampshire to Oyster Bay to get the ship ready for the tow. Bilges were pumped, temporary lighting was installed, and debris was cleared. A marine survey was conducted to ensure the ship was sea-worthy, which it passed, but the group had no way of knowing what the condition of the steel of LV-112’s hull would look like once they got it out of the water.

Though the hull has been stabilized and her exterior is 95 percent restored, there is still work to be done. The ship’s interior needs to be painted, plumbing and heating systems need to be made operational, and ventilation/fire suppression systems need to be restored.

“I’d say she is approximately 60 percent restored,” says Bob Mannino, founder and president of the USLM and leader of the movement to save LV-112. “Our goal is to have her operational again, so we can take her out maybe once or twice a year for special port visits. Aside from that, she’ll most likely be berthed and used as a floating classroom.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.