It all started with his love of sketching and drawing as a child. Mr. John Chase’s (1925-2012) innate desire led him to become a trailblazing man of firsts in many categories.
- First black student at University of Texas at Austin
- The first licensed African-American architect to practice in Texas
- One of the co-founders of the National Association of Minority Architects
- The first black president of the University of Texas alumni group, the Texas Exes .
- The first black to serve on the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, which during his watch picked Maya Lin to do the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Mr. Chase’s life began in Maryland where he studied at the historically black Hampton University in Virginia. Post- graduation, he pursued work as a draftsman at Lott Lumber Company, an Austin-based, black-owned firm that specialized in homebuilding. This work ignited his ambition to pursue designing his own buildings, so he initiated advanced degree studies at University of Texas at Austin. The school was renown for its academic excellence as well as for being segregated. John’s timing was impeccable since the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in three separate civil cases, including Sweatt v. Painter, a case concerning the School of Law at the University of Texas. Chase applied for architecture school that summer and thus became one of UT Austin’s first black students.
As one of the firsts, John was met with so much hate mail that federal marshals shadowed him for his own protection. However, not everyone felt that way. John’s personal discipline and the support from white friends and faculty helped him to succeed. The distraction of hate never deterred his focus After graduating with his Masters of Architecture degree, he took a job as an assistant professor at Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston. He and his wife, Drucie, left Austin with big plans for life and practice in Houston. Sadly, their grand desires for east Texas turned into another environment ripe with repeated discrimination. The systemic barriers were so overt, that nearly every place he showed up to apply for work was met with a notice that there were no opening positions. If he did receive an interview, Chase was denied employment.
As was his style, Chase refused to accept these setbacks and developed a plan to establish his own business which he did in 1952 after taking and passing his exam. Since it was clear that his pursuit of practicing architecture was met with a hostile welcome in the Caucasian community, he embarked on combining his educational foundation with daily cultural and racial interactions. He did this by presenting his master’s thesis “Progressive Architecture for Churches” exclusively to the African American community since churches were still segregated. He and his wife began attending church which led to his foray into architectural design in the African American community. In doing so, he began a new chapter of overcoming oppressive social conditions to create a distinct business strategy and life model. His model included intentionally hiring Black architects, engineers and draftsmen from across the country. In taking this stance, he continued his social legacy of integration into the restrictive architectural industry.
His symbiotic model of business and life harmony, continued through Mr. Chase’s career. His emphasis was always on the human element of architecture, a Usonian ideal of Frank Lloyd Wright. He designed buildings, that encouraged social and recreational activity that produced stronger and more unified communities. His bright, special structures with a minimalist approach of clean lines became a hallmark of his work.
His projects include:
The David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in 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.
Riverside National Bank (a Black owned bank), with its streamlined diamond roof pattern
The Phillips House in East Austin is one of his most famous residential designs. 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.
After the repeal of Jim Crow laws:
He contributed a great deal to the development Texas Southern University Houston campus designing the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanities Building
Ernest S. Sterling Student Life Center and the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at the Texas Southern University Houston campus
Collaborated on the George R. Brown Convention Center
Collaborated on the Harris County Astrodome renovation
Design commission for the United States Embassy in Tunisia.
Stephen Fox, architectural historian at Rice University, sums up John Chase’s life best. “Chase’s legacy is one of success against improbable odds. 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.”