When John Saunders Chase, FAIA (1925–2012) graduated with an M.Arch degree from The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture in the early 1950s — the first African American to achieve that milestone — he couldn’t find anyone who would give him a job. Even in Houston, which was as progressive a city on racial issues as could be found in Texas at the time, no firm would hire him. Left without any other option, he took and passed the state licensing exam — becoming the first African American to achieve that milestone in Texas — and started his own practice. Within a couple decades, he was running the largest minority-owned architecture firm in the country, with approximately 50 employees and offices in four cities, working on major projects that ran the gamut from private homes and churches to large institutional and government buildings.
The Chase saga is wrapped up in the grand historical narrative of the civil rights movement. He would not have been allowed to matriculate at UT at all if it wasn’t for the 1950 U.S. Supreme Court case Sweatt v. Painter, which put an end to the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation. But his story is also one of courage, initiative, and ingenuity, qualities that Chase possessed in abundance.
This becomes clear when reviewing the evidence presented at the exhibit about his life and work, “Chasing Perfection: The Legacy of Architect John S. Chase.” Curated by Danielle Wilson, whose grandmother lived next door to the architect, the show was first exhibited in 2018 at the Houston Public Library. This spring, it traveled to the UT Austin School of Architecture, where the original exhibit’s archival documents were augmented with a series of recent photographs of prominent Chase projects in East Austin — the David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, the Phillips House — and a series of drawings of the Chase residence in Houston’s Third Ward made by UTSOA Professor David Heymann, FAIA, and his students Brooke Burnside, Sarah Spielman, and Wei Zhou.
There was much about the show to absorb oneself in, but the drawings of the Chase residence were the strongest architectural representations on display and said something essential about the Chase story. The house went through two distinct phases during Chase’s life, both of which were drawn by Heymann and his students. It was first a courtyard house, very private, inward looking, and family focused. Later, Chase added a second level, turned the courtyard into a double-height atrium, and opened the facade to the street with large panels of glass. In this second life, the house became a lantern and a semi-public forum, a place where Chase and his wife would host parties and gatherings. On the guest lists were other luminaries, mostly from the African American community: prominent pastors and successful businessmen, not to mention activists and government representatives, such as Mickey Leland.
These gatherings, and the house that accommodated them, were not just altruistic gestures by Chase geared at establishing and cementing community ties. They were a business development strategy. In the words of Wilson: “Chase was politically astute to what was going on in Houston and the country and knew this was an avenue where he could network and get jobs. The house served all of those purposes for him.”
What’s remarkable about this story is how commonplace it is in this economy. The federal government may have cleared the way by diminishing the sort of institutionalized racism that plagued Southern society in the wake of the Civil War, but from there on out, Chase had to bootstrap himself to prominence. That architecture is still struggling with issues of diversity among its ranks makes one wonder what other obstacles need to be rooted out in order for more talents like Chase to emerge.