Tour displays work of John S. Chase, first African-American architect in Texas

Nicholas Velez

An exhibition held Saturday examined the work of John S. Chase, the first African-American enrolled at UT and the first licensed to practice architecture in Texas.

Chase recently passed away on March 29 at the age of 87.

Fred McGhee, an adjunct associate anthropology professor at Austin Community College, said Chase strove to provide the African-American community with a platform to end racism. The buildings he was commissioned to design ranged from schools and churches early in his career to convention centers and other public buildings for various governmental agencies after Jim Crow laws were repealed. McGhee said Chase’s work gave the civil rights movement a base of operations across Texas.

After the repeal of Jim Crow laws, Chase’s public commissions in Houston include the renovation of the Astrodome, the George R. Brown Convention Center, the Thurgood Marshall School of Law and the Martin Luther King, Jr. School of Humanities at Texas Southern University.

McGhee said the network provided by churches was the only method for African-Americans to truly find comfort. McGhee read from Chase’s master’s thesis, which focused on progressive architecture in churches.

“Texas officials during Jim Crow were very keen on preserving white supremacy,” McGhee said. “The church was a refuge from apartheid America.”

McGhee said Chase was unable to find work in any firms owned and operated by white architects in Austin, so he started his own. To receive commissions, he had to be direct with his clients.

“He would go to black churches with his master’s thesis, and explain his vision to the minister,” McGhee said. “In most cases, the answer was ‘yes.’”

McGhee said the modernist vision appealed to the church ministry because it focused on unity.

“[Modern] design is more than form-making. It is a holistic commitment to how space is used by collectives, not just individuals,” McGhee said. 

Rick Black, board member of Austin architecture organization Mid Tex Mod, which sponsored the event held at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, said the trend toward making designs more open and interconnected is distinctly modern.

“Combining the kitchen, living and dining area is a 20th century development,” Black said. “It’s definitely a different way of living — less formal. It brings people together.” 

Stephen Fox, architectural historian at Rice University, said architecture shapes human interaction and is the most basic level of social engineering, a functional form of art. The modernist style is distinctly oriented towards achieving a better tomorrow, he said.

Fox said 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,” Fox said.