A New Book Celebrates a Texas Midcentury Gem—and the Trailblazing Architect Who Designed It

By Duncan Nielsen / Published by Dwell
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In 1952, John Saunders Chase became the first African American to graduate with an architecture degree in Texas. When nobody would hire him, he built his own legacy anyway.

Several years before Rosa Parks made national news, and just two years before the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, John S. Chase graduated from college with a degree in architecture that came with zero guarantees.

Houston’s white architects stonewalled him from internships, but he took the licensing exam and became the first registered African-American architect in Texas. He went on to build an influential body of work—and it’s worth a much closer look.

John Saunders Chase stands in front of his family home in Houston, Texas, with two of his three children, Anthony and John Jr. The home is characterized by its low-slung brick form, and an experimental central courtyard that shifted the paradigm for Modernist architecture in Houston.

Courtesy of the African American Library at the Gregory School

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In the upcoming book, John S. Chase—The Chase Residence, architect David Heymann and historian Stephen Fox take a magnifying glass to Chase’s trailblazing career, providing context to the history of Black architecture in the American South. They also explore how Chase impacted modernism through the design of his own family residence—a courtyard home inspired by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe that pushed boundaries in Texas and beyond.

The original 1958 floor and plot plans of the Chase Residence convey the elevations and layout of the home. The design was a bizarre one for the 1950s— so much so that Chase’s wife, Drucie, was in tears when she first saw the home under construction.

Courtesy of the Chase family

A drawing by book author, professor, and architect David Heymann depicts the home and its central courtyard. 

Courtesy of David Heymann

"The low-slung brick house that architect John Saunders Chase completed for his own family in 1959 was Houston’s first modernist house with a true interior courtyard, a form with which other progressive architects were only starting to experiment," writes Heymann. "The completed house, entirely clad in brick, was hard evidence of [Chase’s] perseverance."

Read on for a peek at the Chase Residence, and preorder a copy of the book, which is set for release this October by the University of Texas Press.

Almost ten years after John Chase completed his family home, a grand, two-story living area was added. New architectural details, like square, wooden shingle-trim blocks, shifted the home’s character away from the influence of Mies van der Rohe and toward the stylings of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Photo by Jason Smith

Another drawing shows the Chase Residence with the second-story addition, which doubled the height of the interior courtyard and added a game room, bedroom, bathroom, and office. "Though the renovation changed the architecture dramatically, remarkably little physical alteration seems to have taken place when you compare plans," writes Heymann. "There isn’t a lot of floor space added, and the perimeter of the old house and roof remains intact."

Courtesy of David Heymann

The expanded home reflects an evolution of Chase’s design tastes, but maintains the courtyard’s function as a communal gathering space.

Courtesy of the African American Library at the Gregory School

The late-1960s remodel added a staircase to the interior courtyard to access the second floor. The home’s original intent—to allow each room to spill into the courtyard—remains. 

Courtesy of the African American Library at the Gregory School

Related Reading:

A Renovated Midcentury Gem in Austin

A Gleaming Glass "Tree Room" Grows Out of a 1970s Houston Home

Project Credits:

Architect of Record: John Saunders Chase

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