Last week, Houston businessman Tony Chase said he was donating $1 million to the University of Texas School of Architecture to honor his father, John S. Chase, who was the school’s first Black graduate and the state’s first licensed Black architect.
Houston Chronicle reported that the donation will help boost the representation of Blacks in architecture schools and within the ranks of working architects.
“Throughout his life and as reflected in his built works, John Chase was a connector and a community-builder,” said Michelle Addington, dean of the School of Architecture. “Not only did Chase design spaces that brought people together, but he used his pioneering position to create opportunities for others.”
Indeed, Chase left behind an incredible legacy that can be seen in various designs in Austin and Houston, and beyond. Apart from being behind the design of Toyota Center and renovations of the Astrodome, he designed the Martin Luther King Jr. School of Communications at Texas Southern University and the first Black bank in Texas, Riverside National Bank.
The trailblazing architect also designed the Thurgood Marshall School of Law and the Booker T. Washington High School in Houston. He did design many homes, but his own home, which he completed in 1959, became the most important.
Born in Annapolis, Md., on January 23, 1925, Chase’s father was a school principal while his mother was a teacher. From 1944 to 1946, Chase served in the Army, fighting in the Philippines during World War II, and getting several military decorations for his service. In 1948, he earned a bachelor of science degree in architecture from Virginia’s Hampton University and two years after, he became the first African American to enroll in the University of Texas School of Architecture, where he graduated in 1952.
After graduation, no architecture firm would hire him because of the color of his skin, so he taught technical drawing at Texas Southern University and it was while teaching that he petitioned the state to allow him to sit for licensing exams without the required experience working for an architecture firm as he wasn’t getting any firm to hire him to enable him to get that experience.
He passed the licensing exams and, in 1954, he opened his own Houston design firm concentrating on homes, churches, schools and public buildings.
When he first started, Houston architects Howard Barnstone and Robert Morris helped him get work while architectural engineer David Baer signed off on his architectural plans, according to Houston Chronicle. Now becoming a well-known architect in his Black community, he opened branch offices in Dallas, Austin and Washington, D.C. in the 1970s and designed buildings at Washington Technical Institute and the national headquarters for the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Despite designing hundreds of homes, schools, churches and buildings, it was his own modern home that caught the eyes of many and continues to amaze people. Located in Riverside Terrace in Houston’s Third Ward, the brick-clad house at the time it was completed in 1959 welcomed almost everyone including politicians and boxing champions like Muhammad Ali. Political events and parties were held there.
The amazing house became the subject of a 2020 book by UT architecture professor David Heymann, from Houston.
“The various buildings John Chase built in East Austin early in his career – from houses to churches to a mortuary – are remarkably cohesive,” Heymann was quoted by Austin American-Statesman. “All are identifiably progressive, proud and optimistic. Chase was designing for the growing Black middle class in the city, a community he and his Austin-born wife, Drucie, knew well. Built well, these buildings were intended to last, which is typical of Chase’s work.”
Heymann said that even though the community those buildings initially served has been gentrified out, one can still “readily perceive the vital civic order Chase’s architecture once imparted to the neighborhood.”
“It continues to do so,” he said.
Before his death in 2012, Chase became the first African American to serve on the United States Commission on Fine Arts and was awarded a commission to design the United States Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia. He also co-founded the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) along with 11 other Black architects in 1971 and was the recipient of the NOMA Design for Excellence Award for four consecutive years.
Throughout his career, the husband and father of three helped up-and-coming architecture students including minorities and non-minorities, his son Tony Chase said.
His firm gave Black architects a place to acquire the professional experience needed for state licensing that he could not get.