Sensi Paul Coffey of Jutsu Aiki Martial Arts is trying to have Shafer’s Hall, where Muhammad Ali once train, placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo by Michael L. Jones

A vacant building in the Portland neighborhood where boxing legend Muhammad Ali once trained could soon be on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Louisville Historic Landmark & Preservation District Commission approved an nomination application for the building, known as Shafer’s Hall, on Dec. 6, and the Kentucky Heritage Council will vote on the nomination on Monday, Dec. 17.

If the application is approved at the state level, the National Park Service will make a final decision on the building’s status in early 2019.

Shafer’s Hall is owned by Jutsu Aiki Martial Arts, a nonprofit that works with disadvantaged people in the community. The organization’s founder Paul Coffey said he is hoping to use the historical designation to raise the $300,000 needed to renovate the building, which has set vacant for years.

“I’m pretty confident it’s going to pass on Monday. Two of the ladies that are on the board in Frankfort were present for the vote in Louisville. I got to meet them. They seemed interested in the history and what our program is doing in the neighborhood,” Coffey added.

Shafer’s Hall is two-story Italianate building, located at 617 N. 27th St. It was constructed in 1877 as a grocery store and first listed as a hall in 1892. The Portland Boxing Club turned the hall into a gym in 1968 and that business remained open until the early 2000s.

Coffey said he has pictures from the late 1960 and early 1970s of Ali and Jimmy Ellis, another heavyweight champion who taught for the boxing club, working out in the gym.  

“This was not a place where Ali trained exclusively, but he definitely came here. And he came by later for the kids. Ali used it for some of his fighting camps. In addition to Ali and Ellis, boxer Rudell Stitch was in the building,” Coffey explained.

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali in a gym at Schafer Hall that was once operated by the Portland Boxing Club. | Courtesy of Paul Coffey

Coffey, 35, also started his dojo with disadvantaged kids in mind. He told Insider that he turned to martial arts as a teenager after being bullied in the Camp Taylor neighborhood where he grew up. Coffey said marital arts taught him self-discipline and gave him confidence.

He founded Jutsu Aiki Martial Arts in 2010 in Camp Taylor and made it a nonprofit, he said, so he could raise money to offer free or low cost classes.

In 2013, the program moved to Portland, where Coffey has been teaching classes at the old Boys and Girls Club of America location at 2509 Portland Ave. Coffey said Jutsu Aiki Martial Arts needs more space now because the demographic it serves is changing.

“From 2010 to 2013, we served mostly children, and we expected it to be about the same when we moved own here. What we found was that this neighborhood there was a great interest in the classes from abused women and people suffering from addiction. That led me to start looking at other locations,” Coffey added.

Coffey purchased Shafer’s Hall for $10,500 this year. He said was walking the neighborhood when he saw a white butterfly with the name “Ali” written on it. 

“I wanted to know what was up with the sign. I looked it up in the PVA to see who owned it. The building was actually designated for demolition until Byron Hoagland saved it. He did it because he liked the architecture, but then he found out about the history,” Coffey said.

Champion Waterproofing & Piering has already started working on the building’s basement. Coffey said Champion is donating $20,000 in labor to his project and being on the National Register of Historic Places will make the building eligible for historical grants that could help fund the renovations.

Michael L. Jones
Michael L. Jones, a freelance journalist and author, covers communities for Insider Louisville. His latest book "Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee" (History Press) received the 2014 Samuel Thomas Book Award from the Louisville Historical League. In addition to his contributions to Insider, his writing appears regularly in LEO Weekly, Louisville Magazine, Food & Dining – Louisville Edition, and Who’s Who Louisville: African American Profiles. He also sits on the board of directors of the National Jug Band Jubilee. Jones and his wife, Melissa Amos-Jones, a physical therapist, live in the Kenwood Hills neighborhood near Iroquois Park.