John S. Chase Helped Build Black History in Texas Through Architecture

A new book pays homage to an unsung icon of Texas design

By Graham Cumberbatch
Photographs courtesy of Houston Public Library and David Heymann
John S. Chase— The Chase Residence
John S. Chase and in front of his Houston residence in 1959.

Set for release in October, David Heymann’s upcoming book on architect John Saunders Chase pays tribute to his legacy and the impact of his vision—not only on his community but on the field itself. The first Black architect fully licensed by the state of Texas, Chase was also the first African American to attend graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, whose administrative resistance to desegregation continued well into the 1960s and was far more deliberate, secretive and persistent than the school had previously dared to admit. When no white-led firms in Texas would hire him, Chase started his own firm and went on to design a myriad of significant and innovative buildings all over the state. Many of these, like the three definitive buildings he designed for Texas Southern University in the 1970s, helped define the era, particularly among historically Black institutions. In Austin, you’ll find Chase’s trademark style at local landmarks like the Phillips House, David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church and the original headquarters for the Colored Teachers State Association of Texas (now the future home of the UT Division of Diversity’s Community Engagement Center).

But what makes John S. Chase—The Chase Residence so unique is its unprecedented look beyond the checklist of firsts, as Heymann and historian Stephen Fox shed much needed light on Chase’s actual work as an architect. They do this by offering a thoroughly detailed ode to Chase’s most personal project: his dream home. Designed and built by Chase himself, the 1959 Houston residence combines his fondness for the work of modern innovators like Frank Lloyd Wright with his own instincts for clever lines, functional style and an invaluable confidence in his own choices—however unorthodox. But what shines through most clearly is Chase’s very human, emotional understanding of the kinds of environments his designs engendered for his family and his extended community. Nowhere is this more evident than in the book’s most distinguished visual feature, a series of drawings produced by a talented corps of UT School of Architecture graduate students that bring the house to life in previously unseen ways.

Illustrations from Heymann’s book bring the Chase home to life.

Rendered and interpreted almost entirely from old photos due to a lack of existing original blueprints, the drawings tell a vital story of the home’s profound transformation nearly a decade after it was built. Chase’s 1968 renovation went well beyond adding a second story, reimagining the visual philosophy of the design itself. As an emblem of the home’s protected familial core, the inner courtyard remains a focal point but receives a major shift in perspective as a double-height social room. Playing host to social and political acolytes like Lloyd Bentsen, Vernon Jordan and even—posthumously for Chase—President Barack Obama, the Chase residence has solidified its place as a cultural epicenter, both locally and nationally, and an indelible Houston landmark whose recognition as such is long overdue.

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John S. Chase—The Chase Residence is available for preorder at utpress.utexas.edu. If you purchase through the University of Texas Press’ Tower Books Imprint, proceeds go to the School of Architecture at the University of Texas.


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