He is still revered in the Austin design community.
Elsewhere around town, late architect John Saunders Chase Jr. is not as widely celebrated. Even fewer recall the full story of the first African-American to earn an advanced degree in architecture at the University of Texas, who went on to design many public and private projects in Houston, Austin and Washington, D.C., while also serving as the first black president of Texas Exes, the UT alumni group.
“Chase is not just important as the first black licensed architect in Texas,” says Fred McGhee, president, Fidelitas Homes & Energy Audits and author of “Two Texas Race Riots.” “But as one of the most important black modernist architects of the 20th century.”
Strongly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, McGhee says, Chase’s designs of houses, churches, schools and public buildings combined a pragmatic approach grounded in black culture and tradition with the forward-thinking precepts of Wright’s thoughts on organic design.
Saturday, Chase will be the subject of a small exhibition and talks at the Carver Museum and Cultural Center, organized by Mid Texas Mod, an advocacy group, and a tour of two signature buildings, the Phillips House and David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in East Austin.
“He was particularly inspired by his devout religious beliefs,” says Larry Speck, architect and former dean of the UT School of Architecture. “And I think some of his best design work came in doing churches for African-American congregations. He understood those churches and the people who worshiped there profoundly, and he took great joy in making spiritual spaces that would have a very positive effect on their communities.”
Anyone who has driven, biked or walked along East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard with any regularity has noticed the high modern chapel and nearby Phillips residence.
“It’s a really great house,” Speck told the Statesman in 2009. “I’ve had my eye on it for years.”
Chase’s timing was impeccable. The Annapolis, Md.-born graduate of Hampton University registered for UT’s architecture school just as the U.S. Supreme Court decided that graduate and professional schools must desegregate. Years later, he was named a distinguished UT alumnus.
“The Drag was completely segregated,” Chase once told an interviewer about Austin life the 1950s. “I couldn’t sleep on campus so I bought a house on East 22nd Street. There was no participation of black athletes in sports programs. We used to go to all the football games, but the stadium was segregated. The last row in the end zone was reserved for blacks. … It’s changed a lot.”
When Chase graduated in 1952, no architectural firm would hire him. So he joined the Texas Southern University faculty and founded his own Houston firm, John S. Chase Architect. For decades, he designed dozens of buildings and served on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which consults with the government about design in Washington, D.C.
On the UT campus, his best known work is probably the Mike Meyers Track and Soccer Stadium. In Houston, he was responsible for the vast George R. Brown Convention Center. He also designed the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia, as well as headquarters for the Washington Technical Institute, Links Inc. and Delta Sigma Theta.
The light-bathed Phillips House was designed for the wife of Oscar L. Thompson, a geneticist and UT’s first black graduate.
“They didn’t spare any expense on materials,” Gregory Smith, coordinator of federal programs at the Texas Historical Commission, told the Statesman in 2009. “It’s an unusual house with a very open floor plan built for entertaining.”
Chase died in 2012 after a long illness, but lived long enough to see his work toasted by tastemakers in the design community.
“John Chase was an amazing human being,” Speck says. “He went through a lot of racial grief in his life, but he had a resilience and positive attitude that let him rise above whatever unfairness came his way. He was not oblivious to the obstacles in his way, but he did not focus on them or let them get him down.”
John Chase Tour Day in East Austin
1 p.m. Gathering and exhibition of John Chase’s work at Carver Museum, 1165 Angelina St.
1:30 p.m. Lectures on Chase’s life and mid-century buildings at the Carver.
2:30 p.m. Self-guided tours of the David Chapel and Phillips House near East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Chestnut Street.
Suggested donation: $5.
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history