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A pioneering modernist’s lasting influence on East Austin

A UT exhibit and panel explore the legacy of John S. Chase

Small, one-story building with flat roof, door with circular windows, angled front-porch post
The former Colored Teachers State Association building on Navasota Street now serves as a community engagement center for UT Austin.
Courtesy of the UT Austin Division of Diversity and Community Engagement

If you’ve spent any time in Central East Austin in the past 50 years or so, you’ve probably seen the work of John Saunders Chase. The pioneering architect was the first African-American graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and the first licensed African-American architect in the state of Texas. His first practice was in Austin, where he wasted no time after earning his license, establishing what would become a legacy of community-focused design that changed the university, the city, and our sense of placemaking and architecture throughout the United States.

Chase grew up in Baltimore and eventually settled in Houston, where he taught at Texas Southern University and established a notable practice that designed significant buildings and expanded to Dallas, Austin, and Washington, D.C. In 1980, he was named to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts by President Jimmy Carter.

His early buildings in East Austin, however, are testament to the talent and sensibilities present evident from the beginning of his career. According to a 2017 Curbed story by Patrick Sisson, Chase was inspired by the community ideals expressed in Usonia, an intentional community designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and he designed numerous “streamlined, spacious public spaces” that are still in use.

The buildings Chase designed in East Austin—both residential and commercial—remain relevant to the neighborhoods there today. They embody the “resilience, determination, and innovation that are integral to the East Austin experience,” said Nicholas E. Armstrong, who is in the master’s program for community and regional planning at UT and a member of the Community and Regional Planning Student Organization.

Chase’s Philips House
Courtesy of the UT Austin Division of Diversity and Community Engagement

Chase’s work, “especially in East Austin, stands as a living testament to the pivotal role that his architectural expertise played in providing communities with much-needed resources for self-sustenance and mobilization toward ongoing activism,” he said.

Chase enrolling in UT, 1950
Courtesy of the UT Austin Division of Diversity and Community Engagement

In conjunction with the school’s “Chasing Perfection: The Legacy of Architect John S. Chase,” the CPSO has put together an impressive panel—one that includes Austin City Councilmember Natasha Harper-Madison, Carter Design Associates president Donna D. Carter, and Six Square director Nefertitti Jackmon, among others—to discuss the architect’s impact on the city as well as how it can inform current conversation about East Austin. Called Breaking Barriers: The Legacy of John Chase, the panel takes place Friday at the UT School of Architecture.

Armstrong said he hopes the panel will also encourage students to “utilize the knowledge gained in their classrooms to become catalysts for positive change in their communities. Likewise, we hope that the community at large will see the importance of understanding the past and its many lessons as we work to build a more inclusive present.”