John Saunders Chase achieved a number of "firsts" in his life. Chase's persistence and courage, as well as the forces of history, made him the first African American to attend graduate school at The University of Texas at Austin and the first licensed black architect in the South. In forging a career for himself, Chase not only paved a once-restricted path for African Americans but also used his position to support minority architects, engineers, and draftsmen across the country. As the first black president of the Texas Exes, the founder of the National Organization for Minority Architects, and the first black man to serve on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, he blazed many trails for the men and women who would follow him.
Chase's architectural career demonstrates an affinity for democracy and unity. He was known for building not only physical structures but also communities. His architectural philosophy embraced the Usonian ideals of Frank Lloyd Wright and aimed to create spaces that brought people together. Having started his career working on black churches in Houston, Chase designed buildings that encouraged social and recreational activity. Bright, spacious public spaces and a minimalist approach characterize Chase's work, which incorporates clean design and an emphasis on the human element of architecture.
Examples of Chase's work can be found across the state. The David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, finished in 1959, still stands in the heart of East Austin. The church exemplifies the concepts Chase presented in his master's thesis, "Progressive Architecture for the Negro Baptist Church," employing the spatial manipulations and openness that he studied in-depth.
The Phillips House, also located in East Austin, is one of Chase's most famous residential designs. Completed in 1966, the house was built for the wife of Oscar L. Thompson, the first black man to earn a degree from The University of Texas at Austin. The Phillips House, with its green, diamond-shaped roof, large expanses of windows, and long lines, stands apart from the other more traditional ranch-style homes in the neighborhood.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Chase began receiving larger commissions that extended beyond churches and homes. He contributed a great deal to the development of the Texas Southern University campus in Houston, designing the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanities Building (1969), the Ernest S. Sterling Student Life Center (1976), and the Thurgood Marshall School of Law (1976). Chase also collaborated on various other large projects, including the George R. Brown Convention Center, the Harris County Astrodome renovation, and a commission to design the United States Embassy in Tunisia.
In February 2018, The University of Texas at Austin purchased one of Chase's first projects as a licensed architect: the headquarters for the Colored Teachers State Association of Texas. The building, located at 1911 Navasota Street in Austin, will become the home of the UT Community Engagement Center, which is part of the university's Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.
This month, we are pleased to feature an excerpt from the upcoming book As We Saw It: The Story of Integration at The University of Texas at Austin, edited by Gregory J. Vincent, Virginia A. Cumberbatch, and Leslie A. Blair. As We Saw It (available in March 2018) chronicles the experiences of pioneering students, faculty, and administrators, including John Chase, during the integration of the university.
In a sea of white faces, John Saunders Chase waited patiently amid the stares and glares of the swarm of humanity surrounding him. Cameras flashed as reporters hurled questions at him and jotted down his responses.
The road to the aforementioned moment began at an early age for John Chase. Although he knew what he wanted to do in life, he was, originally, at a loss to define it. "As a child, I loved to draw and to create things like buildings and airplanes," said Chase. "I knew what I loved to do but didn't really understand the concept of architecture until one day when I knocked on the front door of an architecture firm on West Street in Annapolis and told them I wanted to learn about what they did. Even though the members of the firm were white, they took me in and treated me like one of their own. They sat me at drafting tables and pulled out rolls of plans to show me. And, to this day, I am good friends with members of that firm."1
After high school, Chase followed in his sister's footsteps, enrolling at Hampton University in Virginia. "After graduating from Hampton I took a job in Philadelphia as a drafter. It was at that time that I began to realize just how few black architects there were. Almost all of them were either in New York City or California." When Chase was offered a job in Austin with the Lott Lumber Company, he made his way to the trenches of the South in the spring of 1949. A welcome introduction to the world of architecture, the Lott Company specialized in building houses and was owned by an African American family.2
Chase quickly realized that to pursue his passion and interests in architecture, he needed to advance his studies in the field. The best school for such a degree was The University of Texas at Austin, only a few miles from his home. While widely known for its academic reputation, it was equally known for its segregation. "But there wasn't any other college or university that you could go to in Austin that had architecture," Chase recalled, "so I decided to go and talk to the dean, Hugh McMath. I said 'Look, I'm from the East Coast, but I do understand the laws here, and they in essence say that you don't accept African Americans. I understand that, but I thought maybe it would be possible that I could somehow work a correspondence course.'" McMath responded with a conviction that foreshadowed major change on the horizon: "Are you familiar with the case that's in front of the Supreme Court as we speak?" McMath was speaking about Sweatt v. Painter. Chase had been made aware of the case and conflict months earlier, and while he too sought the opportunity to further his education, he conceded the role of pioneer to the more politically inclined. But with the encouragement of Dean McMath and with no agenda to politicize his pathway to higher education, Chase applied.3
A few weeks later Chase remembers the phone ringing off the hook at his house. The first call was from an Associated Press reporter. He said, "I guess you're aware of the situation at the Supreme Court, Sweatt v. Painter, and that you're now eligible for registration and admission to UT?" The reporter continued, "And I'm sure you're aware of the fact that the next chance to do that will be," and he named a date later in the summer session.4 Chase recalls being emphatic in his response that he planned to be there on registration day. On June 7, 1950, Chase stood in line in Gregory Gym at UT Austin. Just two days earlier, the US Supreme Court had ruled in favor of desegregation in three separate civil rights cases. McLaurin v. Oklahoma State [Regents] and Henderson v. United States focused on banning separate facilities at a university and prohibiting segregated seating arrangements on railroad cars, respectively. The third case, Sweatt v. Painter, concerned equal education opportunities, specifically the right of blacks to enroll in the School of Law at The University of Texas. The court voted in favor of desegregation of graduate and professional schools, and The University of Texas at Austin became the first major public university in the South to open its doors to black graduate students.
Chase's enrollment at the university was in practice a political act, social defiance, and a brave action, but in reality it merely reflected a man's thirst for education and knowledge and professional aspiration. "I think I was just too young to be afraid. I was concerned, but that's about all, I guess. But we got tons of nasty letters. They were from various people around the state and around the country who'd say, 'You should be ashamed of yourself, to go somewhere that you're not wanted.' I didn't give a darn one way or another, but I did want some more architecture. I really did." While aware of them, Chase was not bothered by his fellow students' opinions. Some welcomed him, some ignored him, and others admonished his presence. And on that sweltering summer day in June, he and Horace Lincoln Heath became two of the first African Americans to enroll in graduate studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
Making it in the front door, however, did not promise a typical matriculation into higher education or the social experience often associated with it. African Americans were not allowed to live on campus; they were not permitted to participate in college athletics and were restricted in their socializing. The stadium was segregated, as were the shops and restaurants along Guadalupe Street. The Forty Acres in some ways functioned like an incubator, massaging ideals of equality and change yet susceptible to tainted perceptions of race, social capital, and fairness. In agreement with the NAACP's assessment of racial attitudes in Texas, a student survey revealed that most white students were not offended by the presence of an African American student inside the classroom. And while Chase did not intend to carry the banner for racial equality in enrolling at UT, he was keenly aware and conscious of his color and the impact his presence had on the campus and beyond. "Hampton was a predominantly black institution, so I had never been in a classroom with white kids before," said Chase. "It was hard trying to focus on my studies as a graduate student while adjusting to an environment that was totally foreign to me."
"From the moment I set foot on the university campus, I was shadowed by federal marshals," said Chase. The completion of his degree was a transcendent moment for the institution and surely for those who might follow in his footsteps, but what often got lost in the narrative was the personal triumph it represented. "I waded through some waters up there that I had never been in before. I had no complaints other than the little sour things that every once in a while would pop up. In general, I think things went well. But Austin had a lot of problems," he said. Chase and his fellow black pioneers on campus, such as Oscar L. Thompson, who entered UT in 1951 to achieve a master of science degree, received letters that read, "You are less than a dog to force your way into someplace that you're not wanted." Chase reflected, "You know stuff that people were not comfortable coming up to you and telling you face-to-face. They put it in a letter and sometimes signed it and sometimes not."5
Chase became the first African American to graduate from the University's School of Architecture, a journey he credits to a few caring professors. "I received a lot of hate mail using the 'N' word and a lot of passive-aggressive innuendos and undercuts, but I also received a lot of support from white friends and faculty who wanted to see me succeed." His triumph in the field of architecture was punctuated by the achievements taking place around campus by other black scholars. Oscar L. Thompson in that same year is cited as being the first black student to graduate from the university, after completing his thesis, "A Phenylthiocarbomide Taste Deficiency in a Negro." He would go on to become a staunch community leader and eventually served as a research assistant in the Human Genetics Foundation at The University of Texas at Austin, before he passed of a heart attack in 1962.6
After receiving his master's degree in architecture, Chase was offered a position as an assistant professor at Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston. He and his wife, Drucie, moved to Houston with great expectations of seeing his career as an architect blossom into a reality. Yet he faced continued discrimination in urban Houston. In interview after interview at architectural firms, Chase was denied employment. When he showed up to apply for a job, he was told there were no available openings. So Chase started his own business: "I thought to myself, if no one will hire you, you're going to take that state examination, pass it, and hire yourself," said Chase. "So that's what I did. I hired myself." Having set a precedent for bypassing the social restrictions of his time, in 1952 Chase passed the state examination and founded his own architectural firm.
Faced with inexperience and naïveté in running a business, Chase drew on the education foundation he had developed at UT and his daily cultural and racial interactions in the surrounding college town. The subject of his master's thesis was "Progressive Architecture for Churches." "You see churches were also still segregated. I realized that, if I wanted business, I needed to approach the African American community. 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."7 Chase managed to reinterpret the effects of the oppressive Texas social conditions to inform a distinct business strategy and life model. Having helped open the door to the ivory tower of The University of Texas for African Americans years earlier, he continued his work, solidifying his legacy as a rule changer and social advocate, hiring black engineers, architects, and draftsmen in a field often unwelcoming to their skill set, insight, and experience.
1Unless otherwise noted, quotations in this profile are from John Chase, interview with Amy Crossette, University Communications staff member, 2008, San Antonio, Texas. Most of the profile is from Crossette, "Following Historic Enrollment."
2Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, interview with John Chase, October 23, 2006.
6Kenny and Campbell, "First MA Awarded to Negro Graduate," 1.
7Briscoe Center for American History, interview with John Chase.
Chasing Perfection: The Work and Life of Architect John S. Chase is an exhibition at the Houston Public Library Julia Ideson Building that features architectural drawings, photographs, scrapbooks, and objects from from John Chase's personal collection, offering insight into the man who built an unparalleled legacy.
The concurrent companion exhibition Chasing Perfection: The Legacy of Architect John S. Chase, on display at the African American Library at the Gregory School, highlights the work of several architects who worked with Chase as well as those he influenced and inspired over the years.
These exhibitions and their companion programs were designed to shine a light on the often unseen African American architect, providing a platform for open conversation with the community about the history of African American architects in Texas, the important work minority architects are doing today, and the importance of having architects working on projects in underserved communities. Both exhibitions are on display from now until June 2, 2018.