There was the handsome and charismatic actor Gregory Peck, a special guest at a fundraiser for Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. Reps. Mickey Leland and Barbara Jordan made many appearances through the years, as did Sen. Lloyd and B.A. Bentsen, who were great friends of Chase and his wife, Drucie. Athletes such as boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman and Jimmy Wynn, who played for the Colt .45s and Astros for a decade, went there, too.
From the time the Chases moved into that house in the late 1950s, virtually every person who ran for Texas governor or Houston mayor paid a visit to Chase and his family and friends.
Chase designed his house first and foremost for his family — Drucie, now 89, and sons John Jr., who died two years ago, Tony and daughter Saundria — but also to cultivate business as a center for political life.
Notable Houston structures by John S. Chase
Riverside National Bank, 1963
Martin Luther King Jr. Humanities Building at TSU, 1969
Booker T. Washington High School, 1984-86 (with Morris Architects)
Toyota Center, 2003 (with HOK Sport and Morris Architects)
Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, 1976
By David Heymann
University of Texas Press
40 pages, $35
It’s easy to find photos of Chase, the first Black student to enroll at any Southern college, from that day. It was June 7, 1950, just two days after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened white campuses to Black students. Chase was at the University of Texas to enroll as a graduate student in its School of Architecture. He became the first Black licensed architect in Texas, and remained the only one for about a decade.
In his lengthy career, he designed some 300 homes, schools, churches and other buildings. Chase and his body of work are having a moment of sorts: a new book, “John S. Chase — the Chase Residence” (University of Texas Press; 40 pp.; $35) by David Heymann, a UT professor who documented the home he built for his family. A second book is underway by UT lecturer Tara Dudley, who is taking a deeper dive into the man’s life in a biography expected to publish in the fall of 2022.
The story of John S. Chase, who was 87 when he died in 2012, is much more than a story about a house or any other building. His success and the practice he set up in Houston were the seed for an entire generation of Black architects in Texas.
“It is a crazy underdog story predicated on a couple of different factors. People who knew him describe him as socially capable, enormously outgoing, gregarious, ambitious and positive,” said Heymann, 60, who grew up in Houston’s West University Place neighborhood. “In order to thread the needle in the 1950s, you had to look forward, you couldn’t look backward.”
Chase was in elementary school in Annapolis, Md., when a teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said he wanted to make buildings, and the teacher responded: “Oh, you want to be a builder.” Chase told her that he didn’t want to build them, he wanted to design them. “Then you want to be an architect,” she replied.
In a story retold by Gray, that was the first time her father could put a title to the work that intrigued him. He studied architectural engineering at Hampton University in Virginia, taking a break from 1944 to 1946 to serve in World War II in the Pacific theater. After graduation in 1948, the school’s placement office helped him secure a job with a Black-owned construction company in Austin.
Wanting more professional architectural training, Chase decided to contact UT about its graduate program. Hugh McMath was the head of its architecture program then and met with Chase in 1950, telling him about Sweatt v. Painter, the college desegregation case on the U.S. Supreme Court’s docket. “Bide your time. This (case) will go down, and that will be your opportunity (to enroll),” McMath told him.
Sweatt v. Painter challenged the “separate but equal” racial segregation doctrine of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling and was filed after Heman Sweatt was denied entrance into UT’s law school. The school’s answer then was to create a separate law school for Blacks in Houston — a school that eventually became the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, which, coincidentally, Chase designed years later.
For Chase, though, it meant he could enroll at UT in Austin, where he was wanted in the School of Architecture. Two days after the ruling, he signed enrollment papers as photographers captured the historic event. Those photos don’t, however, show the National Guardsmen standing by with dogs on leashes.
For all of the tension that day must have held, the story that Chase told his children and others focused instead on kindness.
“He told us how nice the other students were to him when he checked in that day,” said Gray, who works as an attorney at Shell. “There are a lot of tentacles to that story — if you need dogs and the National Guard, it’s not that friendly. But white students came up to him and told him they were glad he was there. He let us know that there was beauty behind it as well.”
Dudley grew up in Lafayette, La., and enrolled at UT in 2001 as a graduate student, studying historical preservation and architectural history for her master’s and doctoral degrees. She didn’t know who Chase was until she received the John S. Chase Scholarship that helped pay for her studies.
“As a Black woman teaching architectural history and design, this is very personal for me,” she said of the research she’s doing now for her own book. “As I try to get an understanding of who Mr. Chase was as a person and listening to him speak in (recorded) oral histories, it amazes me. I wish I could have met him once.”
When the Houston Public Library hosted “Chasing Perfection: An Exhibit on Legendary John S. Chase” in 2018, it caught the attention of UT architecture dean Michelle Addington, who insisted they bring the exhibit to Austin.
“John Chase has a slightly complicated relationship with UT, which has never done a particularly good job of recognizing Black alumni. He isn’t even in the yearbook for the year he graduated,” said Heymann, the architect who designed the Crawford ranch of former President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush. “When the dean saw the (Houston exhibit), she said, ‘We have to have this at the school. He’s one of our most prestigious alumni, and we don’t recognize him very well.’”
It was Heymann’s job to make that happen. He added more about architecture to appeal to his students and faculty. From there, more conversations about Chase and his body of work led Heymann to take a group of his students to Chase’s own home in Riverside Terrace — where Drucie still lives — where they measured the home, got copies of its few existing documents and gathered photography.
They reconstructed the 5,100-square-foot modern home — the original structure as well as a later addition — on paper in a series of drawings, and from all of that work, Heymann created his book that publishes this week.
Built as a one-story structure, it was later expanded to two stories, and always had big windows with views of the outdoors. In addition to the indoor koi pond, Chase designed an internal courtyard that could be entered from the home on four sides, which Heymann believes to be the first of its kind in the city.
‘A brilliant marketer’
For several decades, UT paid little attention to Chase and what had become of him, though at some point he was president — yes, the first Black one — of the Texas Exes alumni association.
Life after UT wasn’t easy, but Chase persevered. To be a licensed architect, a person must have a professional degree and a few years’ on-the-job experience before sitting for licensing exams. Chase sent résumés to 20 firms, but no one would hire him, so he taught technical drawing at TSU and launched his own practice after persuading state officials to let him take the exams without that required experience.
Howard Barnstone, whose then-wife, Gertrude, served on the Houston ISD board and was an advocate for desegregation, said that he worried what his white clients would think of a Black person on staff who was not there as a service person.
Though Barnstone wouldn’t hire him, he did what he could to help Chase get work, and the two men were friends until Barnstone’s death in 1987. David Baer, an architectural engineer, was another who helped Chase by signing his architecture plans until Chase could get licensed, and architect Robert Morris was a frequent collaborator.
Chase’s architectural work is admired by many, but his business savvy and personal charm were key to his success.
Dudley noted that his graduate thesis topic was “Progressive Architecture for the Negro Baptist Church,” and in it he designed a complete campus for a hypothetical African-American Baptist church. Though the family’s home church was the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, a historical church established in the 1870s by the Rev. Jack Yates, the Chases attended Black churches all over the area.
“He was a brilliant marketer, he really was,” said Tony Chase, 65, a tenured law professor at the University of Houston. “For the first 15 years of my life, I went to a different church every Sunday. Wherever we went, he was always introduced, and Black people around the state knew who he was.”
Churches are good customers for architects, needing new buildings or additions as their congregations grow, so Dudley imagines that his thesis topic and subsequent church-circuit travel was intentional, letting Black churches know that their own “starchitect” was ready.
In his career, Chase designed homes for many Black professionals, but he also designed several schools for HISD, including Booker T. Washington High School. He designed Riverside National Bank (now Unity Bank), the first Black-owned bank in Texas, and had a hand in the design of Toyota Center and renovations of the Astrodome.
His work was welcome at TSU, too, where he designed the law school, the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanities Building and the Ernest S. Sterling Student Life Center.
Whatever obstacles Chase faced in his life, complaining about them just wasn’t his style.
“My father raised us to be smart, eyes wide open, and understand what was going on around us and to not live with anger about things you have every right to be angry about,” Tony Chase said. “It was end-game focus completely. That’s a terrific characteristic to have.”