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‘A natural-born progressive’: Enter the modernist world of Texas Black architect John S. Chase

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
The Phillips House at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Maple Avenue is an example of the high modernist designs of John S. Chase, the first Black licensed architect in Texas and the first Black student to graduate from the University of Texas School of Architecture.

Any alert observer passing along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near Chestnut Avenue in East Austin inevitably notices two revolutionary sites. One is the David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church with its dramatically escalating roofline, color-block windows and soaring modernist steeple. The other is the radically geometrical and cantilevered residence located a bit to the east of the landmark church at MLK and Maple Avenue known as the Phillips House.

Hidden two lots behind the Phillips House is another multi-level masterpiece, one that for decades was home to the late Irene Thompson, longtime school secretary for the segregated L.C. Anderson High School, who knew just about everybody in East Austin at one time or another.

John Saunders Chase Jr. — the first licensed Black architect in Texas and, in 1952, the first African American to graduate from University of Texas’ School of Architecture — designed all three striking buildings.

Chase, an innate modernist who died in 2012, has always been respected among lovers of good design. I can remember when I moved to Austin in the early 1980s and nearly caused an accident by braking suddenly in front of these startling visions. Now, Chase’s legacy is coming into its own as part of the larger culture.

Two recent exhibits, one in Houston, where he ran his design practice, and the other at UT, celebrated his buildings. Moreover, UT Press just released “John S. Chase: The Chase House,” a slender, handsome book about the architect’s Houston residence, primarily put together by David Heymann and Stephen Fox. Next year, the same publishing house plans to release a long-awaited biography of the breakthrough designer.

John S. Chase with sons Anthony, left, and John Jr. at the Chase Residence in Houston, around 1959.

Not to be left out, the city of Austin is in the process of approving the Rogers Washington Holy Cross Historical District in order to preserve a group of 57 midcentury ranch homes, minimalist buildings and 1960s high-design structures — including the Phillips and Thompson houses — that are part of an East Austin neighborhood north of MLK. Among the residents in this tight middle-class community were civil rights champion Willie Mae Kirk, mother of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and civic leader Saundra Kirk, as well as Jimmy Snell, the city’s first Black mayor pro tem.

“The overdue recognition of John Chase is so important,” says Donna Carter, the Austin architect who is renovating the 1952 Colored Teachers State Association Building, another Chase-designed structure in East Austin, soon to house staff from UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Development. “I am so glad that it is happening, but for me it is so much more — and complicated. The magnitude of the strength of his perseverance, and the perseverance of his clients, is only now made clear as I see the constant onslaught on our East Austin community and its legacy. The artifacts of this legacy are fragile and we are losing them one lot at a time, one story at a time, without even having the historical perspective of how they fit into a whole. We are losing the richness and depth of the story.”

‘A natural-born progressive’

John Saunders Chase Jr. was born in Annapolis, Md., on Jan. 23, 1925. His father was a school principal, his mother a teacher. According to the authoritative Handbook of Texas, Chase served in the Army from 1944 to 1946, and during World War II, he fought in the Philippines while receiving several military decorations for his service. He earned a bachelor of science degree in architecture from Virginia’s Hampton University in 1948, and, in 1950, he became the first African American to enroll in the UT School of Architecture. He graduated in 1952.

Booming Houston beckoned to him after graduation, but no white architectural firm in that city would take Chase on as an intern, usually a prerequisite to taking exams for a state license. So in 1952, the same year that he joined the Texas Southern University faculty, he petitioned the state board to take the exams anyway. He passed and, in 1954, started his own Houston design firm that focused on homes, schools, churches and public buildings.

“John Chase was affable, gregarious and confident,” writes Stephen Fox in the new UT Press book about the Chase House. “He overcame enormous historical obstacles with an unerring public display of grace, modesty, charm and determination.”

The David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church is one of John S. Chase's masterpieces in East Austin.

Fox correctly states that Chase, while the state’s first Black licensed architect, was not the state’s first Black architect. Before Texas passed the architectural registration law of 1937, several Black designers earned distinction for projects in the state, including Bastrop-born Louis Edwin Fry and William Sidney Pittman — both based their careers in Washington, D.C. — and Richard Allen, a formerly enslaved architect who designed the core of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, built in Houston’s Fourth Ward in 1879. That landmark is still standing.

Given the evidence of his work, Chase was influenced by some of the great modernist thinkers, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. By 1970s, his firm had opened branch offices in Dallas, Austin and Washington, D.C. New federal laws and city ordinances passed to guarantee equal opportunity to contracts for public projects opened up joint design ventures, such as the Harris County Jail and Houston’s Brown Convention Center, as well as additions and alterations to the Astrodome.

John S. Chase had a long and distinguished career. His design firm opened offices in Houston, Dallas, Austin and Washington, D.C.

Among Chase’s masterpieces is the brick-clad house he built for his young family in 1959 — then revised in 1968 — in the Oakmere neighborhood above Houston’s Brays Bayou. In the recently published volume about that house on a cul-de-sac, David Heymann, who teaches at UT and wrote the delightfully wry book, “My Beautiful Austin,” shares that Chase’s wife, Drucie, broke into tears when she first saw how the radical house would wrap around a courtyard open to the sky. She couldn’t figure out how it would actually work.

According to Drucie, though, John was “a natural-born progressive.”

As originally built, the social rooms of the house were accessed from, not halls, but partly shaded walkways outside. No matter, guests gravitated to the courtyard, despite the alternative of spacious, air-conditioned interior social rooms. Chase enclosed the courtyard in 1968 to make a two-story “great room,” with additional rooms added above older ones for what had become a family of five.

“The house was an improbable accomplishment,” Heymann writes, “and the apparent normalcy of the charming snapshots of Drucie and John standing in front of it with John Jr. and Anthony, their two young sons, is misleading.”

A third child, Saundria, came along soon after the house was first completed.

A boon to business, John and Drucie joined the city’s prominent Black churches and clubs, and Drucie loved to entertain. John cleverly designed a wall-high bookshelf in the den what was hung on a track and rolled into a wall pocket to expose a bar counter.

“Drucie explained that, as Baptists, she and John were not supposed to drink, and they kept the bookshelf rolled out when ministers were visiting the house,” Heymann writes. “'But honestly,' she said laughing, 'even then it wasn’t closed that much.'”

The Thompson House on Maple Avenue was designed for Irene Thompson, longtime school secretary at L.C. Anderson High School. It is part of the Rogers Washington Holy Cross Historical District, home to a midcentury neighborhood for middle-class African Americans.

Evidently, the couple turned out to be a matched pair. After they had met at a wedding, John asked Drucie, a graduate of L.C. Anderson High and what is now Huston Tillotson University, for a date several times. Yet she wouldn’t go out until he met her father. The two men bonded over baseball and her dad gave his approval. They soon were wed and the marriage lasted 62 years.

Chase died on March 29, 2012. Drucie died on January 19, 2021.

A permanent legacy

Inarguably, Chase left his mark on the design and the design communities of Austin as well as Houston.

“I like to remember John S. Chase is an architect, first and foremost, a former colleague,” says Donna Carter, who designed the Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogical Center among many other projects. “An architect with no modifiers, extenuating circumstances or other asterisks except extremely talented and dedicated to his craft and his community.”

Heymann is no less admiring.

“The various buildings John Chase built in East Austin early in his career – from houses to churches to a mortuary – are remarkably cohesive,” Heymann says. “All are identifiably progressive, proud and optimistic. Chase was designing for the growing Black middle class in the city, a community he and his Austin-born wife, Drucie, knew well. Built well, these buildings were intended to last, which is typical of Chase’s work. But the community they initially served has been gentrified out. Still, you can readily perceive the vital civic order Chase’s architecture once imparted to the neighborhood. It continues to do so.”

You can't miss the David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard with its escalating roof, color-block windows and soaring modernist steeple.

The historical significance of these structures is not lost on those who keep tabs on local, state and national landmarks.

“Austin is so fortunate to have a number of Chase’s finest examples of his incredible legacy in Texas, including one of his early iconic designs, the 1959 David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church,” says Charles Peveto, architectural historian with the Texas Historical Commission. “Chase’s master's thesis was ‘Progressive Architecture for the Negro Baptist Church.’ He paved the way to successful careers for many minority architects, engineers and draftsmen all across the country.” 

Fox goes even further in his assessment of this legacy.

“Chase’s buildings embraced a future he was determined should be better than the past,” he writes. “He mobilized modern architecture to become a ‘democratic architecture’ worth of our American way of life, with emphasis on ‘our.’”