Up until his passing, architect John Saunders Chase kept a box of letters at his house. Many of them, written by people who had never actually met him, refer back to a moment when Chase found himself in the national spotlight.
The first African-American to attend the prestigious architecture school at the University of Texas in Austin in 1950, Chase was a pioneer. AP photographers showed up when he registered for classes, and in addition to the hate mail, he was trailed by a federal marshall between classes, and was forced to live off campus since no landlords near the school would rent to a black man at the time.
By the time he retired—after establishing a successful practice, John S. Chase, Architect, helping found the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), and serving as president of the Texas Exes, an honor at his alma mater—Chase had become not just a respected architect, but a community leader. It showed in his welcoming, expansive designs: modern buildings made to be inspiring and inclusive.
“Chase mobilized modern architecture as a democratic process, and his buildings embraced the future that was determined to be better than the past and the present,” Stephen Fox, an architectural historian at Rice University, told the Daily Texan.
Growing up in Baltimore, John S. Chase knew he liked to create and to draw. Still, he couldn’t quite figure out what that meant for his future until he decided, as a child, to walk into an architecture office and find out. As he explained in a series of oral history interviews, he knocked on the door of a firm in Annapolis, Maryland, where the staff sat him down at a drafting table and showed him blueprints. He maintained a friendship with those architects decades later.
The route to opening his own firm proved more difficult. After serving with distinction in the Army in the Philippines during WWII, he earned an architecture degree at Hampton University in Virginia, and began drafting for a firm in Philadelphia, concentrating on residential work. Seeking bigger and better things, Chase took a job offer with the Lott Lumber Company in Austin, Texas, an African-American-owned firm specializing in private homes.
Chase felt that he needed more formal training to get ahead, and in 1950, approached the dean at the University of Texas, trying to find a way into the school despite its segregation policy . At nearly the same time, the Supreme Court had issued a decision in Sweatt v. Painter, which barred segregation in professional schools. In 1952, Chase would be the first African-American graduate from the university, but soon found that none of the white-owned firms would hire him. Fed up with rejection, Chase decided to work for himself, turning the dining room of his home into an office.
While his first gig as an architect and business owner was designing the Luxe Hotel in Austin, most of his early years focused on homes and churches. Moving to Houston after being offered a teaching position at Texas Southern University, he drummed up business by introducing himself at African-American churches and sharing his ideas for progressive church architecture, the subject of his master’s thesis.
“I realized that, if I wanted business, I needed to approach the African American community,” he said. “And the best way to do that was to attend church. I figured I could learn how to build churches with a little hard work and a lot of faith.”
Inspired by Wright’s Usonian ideals, Chase envisioned streamlined, spacious public spaces. He designed the first black-owned bank in Texas, Riverside National Bank, and soon found his practice expanding as he took on larger opportunities. At one point, he had designed more than half of the buildings on Texas Southern University’s campus, and he was eventually asked to design the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia and even renovate the Astrodome. His firm opened offices in Dallas, Houston, Austin, and Washington, D.C., and in 1980, he’d be named to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts by President Carter.
Chase did more than build physical structures of community. Throughout his career, he continued to advocate for and assist minority architects. In 1971, he helped co-found the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), and throughout his career, always made it a point to have offices in local neighborhoods. After all, who knew when the next John S. Chase might walk in the door?
“The thing I always wanted to do was serve as an example to young kids, elementary school and high school, who can pass by your building, see the word architect and come in and ask ‘what do you do?’” he told a radio interviewer. “You can’t do that working on the 30th floor downtown.”
Buildings to know
Chase’s largest collection of work can be found on the Texas Southern University campus. His Martin Luther King Jr. Humanities Building stands as one of his best, a suspended series of white circles that hovers above the campus lawn.
Public architecture was his forte, exemplified by his ecclesiastical designs in East Austin, such as the Olivet Baptist Church, a steep, brick-clad design with an angular roof, and the David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, its stylish, slanted roof off-setting a minimalist bell tower. His most famous residential work, the 1966 Phillips House, also in East Austin, stands out in a neighborhood of ranches and bungalows, with sweeping horizontal lines and a diamond-shaped, green-trimmed roof.
Legacy and reputation today
John S. Chase left a varied body of work, and never stopped building community, whether it was via his commissions or business practices. His firm would provide opportunities to African-American draftsman, architects, and engineers for decades, continuing to open doors and improve the architecture community.