By Andrew Basha, Cole Bennette, Alexis Medrano-Ross, Erin O’Brien, and Jacob Radack
Last fall, several students in Dr. Tara Dudley’s Fall 2020 African American Experience in Architecture seminar spent the semester researching the work and legacy of John S. Chase—the first African American to graduate from The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and the first Black registered architect in the state of Texas. Over the semester, they identified more than 290 projects designed by Chase and developed a series of maps to visualize and locate his work across the southeastern United States, which will be an ongoing effort as research continues.
By contextualizing the boundary-breaking architect’s life through these maps, we gain a vital understanding of the scope of Chase’s legacy and the communities supported by his architecture. Pictured here are maps locating Chase’s projects across the United States and the State of Texas, including city-specific maps of Austin, Houston, Dallas, Galveston, and Washington D.C., as well as a map dedicated exclusively to Chase’s work at Texas Southern University.
We asked each of the students to reflect on the experience, highlighting what they learned or found most inspiring about the life, work, and legacy of John S. Chase. Read on for excerpts from the students’ final report and their insights gleaned from the semester’s work. Words and visualizations by Andrew Basha, Cole Bennette, Alexis Medrano-Ross, Erin O’Brien, and Jacob Radack.
Andrew Basha: “John S. Chase viewed architecture, both big and small, as a mechanism for fostering interpersonal relationships. I hope to gain more opportunities to explore that attitude and apply it to my own work one day as successfully as he did.”
Cole Bennette: “Born and raised in Houston, I was immediately interested in John S. Chase. After learning about his groundbreaking career and the monumental impact he had on Houston’s built environment, I was shocked that it took me more than half of my college education to even hear about him. While mapping Chase, what struck me was the sheer number of built works he had. The fact that he completed so many projects despite the racism he faced from clients and the architecture world is truly inspiring.”
Alexis Medrano-Ross: “As an African American architecture student in my final semester at UTSOA, the opportunity to research and document the efforts of John S. Chase was both inspirational and important to me as it aligned greatly with my own identity and aspirations. Chase exhibited resiliency in all facets of his legacy, which is something I can take away and apply to my approach and understanding of what it means to be an architect in a field that I will face much adversity in. Mapping his projects throughout the United States, and more specifically Texas, allowed me to learn about the impact he had on the communities he designed for as an architect. His presence as a designer extended beyond just a physical building but had a deeper impact on the users he designed for by allowing them to reclaim their communities as their own and gain a sense of belongingness or identity.”
Erin O’Brien: “I found Chase and his work inspiring not only because he was so driven to advance his own and other Black architects’ standing in the field, but also for his commitment to designing truly for the people. His massive catalog of churches, schools, and public works buildings is an inspiration to future architects like myself who want to build with communities, not just for them. Chase's contribution to the vernacular architecture of small towns and big cities alike is at once humbling and inspiring to me because I see myself fitting into the role of local community builder.”
Jacob Radack: “Since moving to Austin, I have had a strong interest in John Chase. As a native of Washington DC, I was delighted to learn about his work on the Washington Technical Institute, just down the road from where I used to live. Chase produced iconic and long-lasting works and I’m happy his legacy is growing with recent research.”
Mapping John Chase Written Report
John S. Chase will long be remembered as being the first African American architect in the state of Texas. Any article that discusses his life or merely mentions his involvement on a project recognizes that achievement. What people forget is that breaking barriers is not an action – it is a mentality.
The incredible story of Chase’s professional accomplishments tends to steal the spotlight from his work. Therefore, a physical mapping of his architecture helps gauge the tangible components of his legacy. A culmination of scholarly articles, interviews, library archives and historical records indicates at least 294 buildings or renovation projects attributed to John S. Chase, spread throughout the southeastern United States from Texas to Washington D.C. The comprehensive series of maps show the extent of John S. Chase’s architectural influence across the country and highlights the epicenters of his creativity in Texas.
The Houston map is arguably the most important in the series and it requires special commentary, given this is not only the city for which John S. Chase did the vast majority of his design work but also the city that showcases the most diverse collection of Chase projects. Chase’s work in Houston demonstrates his architectural trajectory and offers keen insight into his design ideals and his experience as one of the few African American architects in Texas. Chase moved to Houston in 1952, just after successfully defending his graduate thesis entitled “Progressive Architecture for the Negro Baptist Church” at UT Austin. He took his thesis to local African American churches on Sundays and quickly built a clientele to launch his firm. Chase’s first commission in Houston was the First Shiloh Baptist Church which struck similar chords in its design as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple. These early projects lay the foundation for Chase to express his design style through religious and residential architecture. Future projects of his such as the Greater Zion Baptist Church in Houston, David Chapel in Austin, and Olivet Baptist Church in Austin exude similar auras, aided by the incorporation of Chase’s signature extended-pitch roof. The flirtation of the roof is also seen in Chase’s own mid-century home in Houston and Della Phillips’s house in Austin.
Evidence of a major turning point in Chase’s career lies on the Texas Southern University Campus in Houston. From the late 1950s to the late 90s, Chase was tapped to design 21 buildings and perform at least 15 renovations for Texas Southern University in addition to helping devise the campus masterplan in 1978. Chase gave TSU a modern aesthetic, drawing from the same ideals of clean geometry utilized in his earlier architecture. The opportunity to design much of the TSU campus helped transition Chase’s focus from the cultural vernacular to larger-scale educational and municipal architecture.
There exists a common denominator across all of John S. Chase’s work, from the First Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church to the Toyota Center: community. John S. Chase’s architecture is tailored to the local or regional community within which it exists. He would not adopt a geo-specific style per se, but his intentional designs elevate others. This is evident in the kinds of vernacular work for which he was willing to accept commissions and is perhaps additionally supported by his introduction to practicing architecture almost exclusively in the African American community. For Chase, his career truly began as the African American experience of architecture and he took the communal ideal to his designs for school groups, church groups, and citizens of municipalities to make space for them, as opposed to himself.
In a country where the splendors of the built environment have long been reserved for people with a lighter skin tone, it is up to architects to change the norm and create ownership for communities who have historically been excluded from the narrative of American architecture. As every architect should, John S. Chase challenged the status quo in the name of progress.