Common ground: The story of Austin’s newest, and only Black, historic district

The importance of the Rogers Washington Holy Cross Historic District is as much about saving the community's stories as it is about preserving the houses. The neighborhood is featured in Preservation Austin's 2021 homes tour


The recent designation of Austin’s newest, and only Black, historic district means a cluster of midcentury homes and the histories of their owners, who claimed the enclave as their own in Jim Crow Austin, will be preserved.

The new Rogers Washington Holy Cross Historic District — bounded roughly by East Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., East 21st  Street, Maple, and Cedar avenues — was approved in September 2020. And now Preservation Austin will focus its annual homes tour on the neighborhood with “Black Heritage, Living History,”  a virtual event which premieres at 7 p.m. on June 17.

Among the seven homes featured is the iconic Phillips House, recently nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.

Phillips House
Built in 1964 for businesswoman and educator Della Phillips, the Phillips house is the work of architect John S. Chase, the first Black licensed architect in Texas. Photo: Lauren Kerr

In the 1950s, Black families who broke barriers in education, the military, science, civil service, and business built homes in Rogers Washington Holy Cross. And a handful of original residents and many of their children who’ve inherited houses still live there. Alarmed by new construction that altered the character of the area, and led by neighborhood association president Brenda Malik, a homeowners group worked hard to build support for the historic designation and to negotiate the design standards it establishes.

Historic designation brings important safeguards: It will halt the tear-down of period homes, some of which were hauled off overnight and replaced with jarring modern infill. And it will dictate the scale and style of new builds to blend more suitably with the area’s historic inventory.

Jim Crow East Austin

The 1928 city plan that mandated the relocation of most of Austin’s African American population to a “Negro District” east of what is now I-35 is infamous, and its consequences resonate almost 100 years later. Segregated in East Austin, Blacks built and operated their own businesses and professional services: groceries, pharmacies, barber and beauty shops, clubs, cafes, dentists, doctors, a lumber company, a trade school, and funeral homes.  The segregated schools — Gregorytown (later Blackshear) Elementary, Kealing Junior High, and “Old” or L.C. Anderson High — grew to have top-notch faculty, educators who had secured their graduate credentials out of state because of Texas segregation.

Yet in the post-War years, successful Blacks who, like their White counterparts, wanted to leave central Austin for the suburbs, were hindered by segregationist neighborhood covenants. And redlining — the practice of marking city maps to designate minority-occupied areas as high-risk to federal mortgage programs and other financial resources — drastically limited options for Black homebuyers.

1957 newspaper ad for open house
Ad for Holy Cross Heights open house, Austin American Statesman, June 27, 1957

So the Black community created its own midcentury neighborhood. In 1950, dentist and community leader Dr. Everett Givens subdivided a tract of land he owned off E. 19th Street (now MLK, Jr. Blvd.), adjacent to Austin’s impressive new Holy Cross Hospital, which was built for African Americans and gave Black physicians all admitting and surgical privileges. With A.J. Stenger, a White architect and builder famous for his midcentury designs, Givens platted Holy Cross Heights, the first “Negro” subdivision in Austin to have Federal Housing Authority approval. Homes had to cost between $6500 and $8000, with monthly payments from $45 to $50.

Stenger-designed homes were never actually built on any of the Holy Cross lots. But after adjacent landowners Eli Rogers and  Marcellus Washington followed suit by subdividing their plots, local builders including Lott Lumber (the largest Black-owned lumberyard in Texas), Hal Starkey, Travis Cook, and Nash Phillips built in the neighborhood by the late 1950s.

Most homes were of postwar design — ranch, minimal traditional, contemporary and split level in style. All reflected the professional status achieved by their owners, who mostly left older areas of East Austin to build their dream homes. And two widows who built homes for themselves, Della Phillips and Irene Thompson, turned to an African American modernist architect from Houston with many ties to the neighborhood.

Chasing Distinction

John Saunders Chase (1925-2012) was born in Annapolis, MD, and first came to Austin in 1948 after completing an architectural engineering degree at Virginia’s Hampton Institute. By the traces that can still be uncovered, it’s clear Chase hustled. He designed homes for Lott Lumber, hung out his shingle on East 11th Street as a contractor with a partner named Buckley, was an instructor at the vocational Crescent Institute in East Austin, and also taught night school at L.C. Anderson High.

John Chase
John Chase in front of his self-designed Houston home with sons Anthony and John Jr. Image: African American Library at the Gregory School

In 1950 he made history when, two days after the Sweatt v. Painter Supreme Court decision striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine as a basis for segregation in higher education, Chase enrolled for a master’s degree in University of Texas School of Architecture. Completing his degree in 1952 with the thesis “Progressive Architecture for the Negro Baptist Church,” he went on to face more challenges to becoming the first licensed Black architect in Texas.

In Austin, Chase met and married local girl Miss Drucie Rucker in Ebenezer Baptist Church, and they remained close to the congregation throughout their lives. Their newlywed home was on East 22nd Street, around the corner from what is now RWHC. After relocating to Houston, where his practice grew nationally and internationally, Chase served on the board of the historically Black Huston-Tillotson University for many years.

city directory listing for Chase business 1949
1949 city directory, courtesy Austin History Center

His early career in Austin included commissions for the 1952 Colored Teachers State Association of Texas at 1191 Navasota Street; the 1955 King-Tears Mortuary at 1300 East 12th Street; the 1961 Olivet Baptist Church on San Bernard and Cotton streets; and the 1958 David Chapel Missionary Baptist on East MLK, Jr Blvd at Chestnut, kitty corner from the Phillips House. All remain in the inventory of classic modernist buildings in Austin today.

Chase designed his first residential project for Irene Thompson after the death of her husband Oscar, his contemporary in breaking the race barrier at UT in the 1950s. Oscar was, in fact, UT’s first Black graduate and went on to do pioneering genetics research into sickle cell anemia. Irene was known to generations of East Austinites as the longtime school secretary of L.C. Anderson High, and was a major Democratic political organizer.

Thompson House
The Thompson House, the first residential project designed by John Chase. The house was built for Irene Thompson after the death of her husband Oscar, Chase’s contemporary in breaking the race barrier at the University of Texas in the early 1950s.

On a quick drive-by, her 1963 home on Maple Avenue is unassumingly tucked into its lot and landscaping. Only on closer inspection does its skillful blending of stone, wood, and glass reveal itself. Chase cited Frank Lloyd Wright as an influence on his earliest work, and the bold simplicity of the Thompson house reflects Wright’s Usonian aesthetic of low roofs, cantilevered overhangs, and natural lighting. Irene Thompson passed away in 2017, but the home remains in her family.

The Della Phillips House, on the other hand, is a full-blown and highly visible monument to Chase’s mastery of midcentury splash — and Della’s desire to have a home fit for her duties as hostess to her community circle. The house is a darling of design buffs, and its distinctive roofline graces the Preservation Austin promotional materials for the June tour.

Phillips House
The Phillips House, built inn 1966, was designed by architect John L. Chase. It will be featured on Preservation Austin’s virtual homes tour. Photo: Lauren Kerr

When Della Phillips commissioned Chase to build her house in 1964, she gave him complete latitude to do as he pleased — and he did. Utilizing a striking green folded plate roof that he’d previously employed in the design of the 1956 Riverside (now Unity) Bank in Houston, the house soars from a river rock base on its hilly corner at E. MLK, Jr. Blvd. and Maple Avenue. No expense was spared in creating a cantilevered balcony, cladding the home with walls of windows, and finishing the interior in African mahogany paneling, marble, and terrazzo flooring. It even had an elevator from the lower parking level to the living space above.

The Della behind Phillips House, and the Stella

Della Phillips is often described as a woman fond of stylish clothes and nice cars, but the documentation of her 80 years in Austin is scant in the public record, even as her contributions were significant. She was born in 1908 as Della Josephine Williams on a stretch of East 11th known as Faculty Row to adjacent Samuel Huston College (in 1952 merged with Tillotson College). Her Robertson Hill neighborhood was home to many important Black families in early East Austin, but its physical history has been erased by gentrification and rabid growth.

Della Phillips
Della Phillips, undated photograph

Della obtained her degree and certification from Samuel Huston and had a four-decade teaching career in and around Austin. She was a lifelong member of Ebenezer Baptist Church. She married local mortician W. Eugene Phillips, and the two had no children. Gene Phillips had started work under William Tears, Sr. in the mortuary business, and went on to partner with George Upshaw in a business begun in the front parlor of the Upshaw family home at 1410 East 12th Street.

A 1953 article in Ebony magazine, “Death is Big Business,” pointed to how a mortuary career could be advantageous for Blacks seeking professional advancement. Only the preacher and the funeral director, it advised, are “24/7 in a suit,” gaining the trust and respect of their community. Black funeral homes had a vital role in honoring the unique burial rites and customs of the African American community. It’s significant that the Rogers William Holy Cross neighborhood had not one, but two, mortuary owners in its midst.

Della successfully ran Upshaw Phillips after Gene’s death in 1960, and the business continues under a third partner, Richards, in its original location today.

After Della’s years in the house as a hostess to Zeta Phi Beta gatherings, Ebenezer Baptist Church committees, and an annual holiday party for neighbors in which children recall the thrill of riding her elevator, the house was sold by heirs to a Mrs. Estelle “Stella” Louise Edmerson Banks, whose story could not be more in step with its flair.

Born in Manor in 1920, Stella was raised in Austin with her aunt, Willie Mae “Ankie” Jones. Near in age, they were both popular students at L.C. Anderson High, where Stella was the first female drum majorette and a budding entertainer. The two reportedly sang in Rosewood Park on Friday nights.

Stella sings with the Ernie Fields Orchestra
Stella Edmerson singing with the Ernie Fields Orchestra. Image courtesy

Stella earned her degree from Samuel Huston College before touring nationally as a singer with the Ernie Fields Orchestra of Tulsa. Basing herself in Los Angeles, she completed a master’s at UCLA in 1954 with a thesis on Negroes in radio broadcasting. She is credited with integrating the American Federation of Musicians.

Her focus later turned to education, and after more graduate work at UCLA and teaching in California, she returned to Austin and taught at Kealing Junior High and Reagan High School and became a powerful speaker for educational boards and committees statewide. Virgil Banks was her college sweetheart whom she wed in California in the 1960s. The two had no children either, and he predeceased Stella by five years.

Stella’s decision to acquire Della’s house was no doubt in some measure because her aunt  lived just doors away, up Maple Avenue. Willie Mae had married Lee Kirk, the first Black postal clerk in Austin, and became a local powerhouse in civil rights, desegregation, and education until her death in 2013. Their son Ron Kirk was the first African American to be mayor of Dallas and Texas Secretary of State. He later served in the Obama administration.

New stewards in a new East Austin… without an elevator

The Phillips House passed from the larger “family of the neighborhood” when Stella Banks died in 2006. Stephanie Holt owned the home for about three years before design and branding entrepreneurs Penny and James Moore moved to Austin and purchased it on a love-at-first-sight basis in 2009. They are the only family with children to occupy the house in its 57-year history.

The Moores are often asked if it’s a private residence, or if it was built for some commercial use. Rumors persist of it having been a bank, maybe fueled by the roofline or the legendary elevator (which sadly no longer works). The light and the great open spaces where a grand piano once belonged to Stella, or perhaps Della, according to stories they’ve heard, are the perfect arena for family life, as their children chase each other around the curved, wood-paneled central divider Chase designed for the house.

But what the Moores have learned is most remarkable about their home isn’t just its eye-popping design and the groundbreaking legacy of its architect. It’s that Chase out-designed West Austin in East Austin — and for an independent Black businesswoman.

More stories, more houses

Other homes on the Preservation Austin virtual tour:

Calhoun House
The California-style Calhoun House. Photo: Lauren Kerr
  • The California-style Calhoun House, built by Kealing Junior High’s longtime principal, T.C. Calhoun, and Thelma Dodson Calhoun, an educator and reading specialist. It is now owned by their daughter Patricia, an interior designer, who was key in the historic designation work for the neighborhood.
King house
Built in 1959 for Huston-Tillotson University president Dr. John Q. Taylor King, the King House is featured on the Preservation Austin 2021 Tour. The house is often mistakenly attributed as designed by architect John S. Chase, who had many ties to the neighborhood. He advised and consulted on the King House along with others. Photo: Lauren Kerr
  • The King House, owners of King-Tears mortuary, now in its third generation of operation in East Austin. The family’s striking tri-level home on Givens hosted many Black dignitaries visiting Austin after it was built in 1959 for John Q. Taylor King, Huston Tillotson’s longest serving president and a retired military officer.
Mims house
Carnegie Harvard Mims, Sr. and his wife Mae built this home on Weber Avenue for their family in 1961. Photo: Lauren Kerr
  • The home of educators Carnegie Harvard and Mae Mims, which has passed to daughter Brenda Malik, one of Austin’s first African American news anchors and aide to its first Black councilman, Jimmy Snell, also a neighbor. Retired now from a long career in Austin public affairs, Brenda was the wind under the wings of the historic designation campaign.
Marshall House
The Marshall House. Photo: Lauren Kerr
  • The Jackson-Marshall home, built by Huston-Tillotson home economics professor Shirley Jackson and husband Marion, an early Black postal employee in Austin. Daughter Lavon, former dean of students at HT, moved into the house with her husband General Marshall, professor of mathematics and golf coach at the college. General is known for his long association with Lions Municipal Golf Course, caddying there for 85 cents for 18 holes as a youth, witnessing its historic integration in the 1950s, and serving on the SAVE MUNY committee for 35 years. The eighth hole has been named in his honor since his passing last summer.
Poole House
Poole House. Photo: Lauren Kerr
  • Poole House, designed by original resident Ira Poole, 90, who first eyeballed Mr. Washington’s property during his college days at Huston-Tillotson long before it was even subdivided. His splendid yard art and 1964 home at the corner of MLK, Jr. Blvd. and Maple Avenue have been his pride and joy for over 60 years.
Scales House
The Scales House was built in 1959. Photo: Lauren Kerr
  • The Scales home, built for Norman and Lydia Scales in 1959. She began a long teaching career in a one-room schoolhouse in Webberville, and Captain Scales was a medaled Tuskegee Airman, one of the elite Black squadron of WWII fighter pilots known for their courage. Norman Scales, Jr., a pilot and musician, now lives in the home.

No other neighborhood of original owners or their heirs likely remains in any part of Austin. Even more remarkable is that it survived in East Austin, where the urban renewal projects of earlier decades wiped out whole neighborhoods, and disinvestment or economic hardship left many blighted pockets ripe for teardown when central East Austin became the hot spot for new development. While the historic designation will help preserve Rogers Washington Holy Cross’s houses, it remains to be seen if it will allow families to maintain their long legacies in the face of skyrocketing property taxes and valuations.

A handful of East Austin organizations and cultural resources are capturing more of its rich history before it is lost or forgotten — Six Square, DiverseArts’ East End Digital Archive Project, The African American Cultural Heritage Center, and even ventures like Javier Wallace’s Black Austin Tours. But it’s history resides largely intact in the bricks and mortar of the Rogers Washington Holy Cross District.

An endangered treasure

Just outside the boundary of the Rogers Washington Holy Cross District is another John Chase master work, David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, at Chestnut and MLK, Jr. Blvd. Completed in 1958, it reflects the essence of Chase’s thesis on modernist architecture for the Black church, how design had the effect of freeing congregants from a fraught past, and how the church’s building could reflect forward-looking aspirations. It is one of the most significant works of modernist architecture in Austin by any measure.

David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church,
Designed by John Chase and completed in 1958, David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church is one of the most significant works of modernist architecture in Austin.

The David Chapel membership has outgrown the space that segregation dictated they build in East Austin more than 60 years ago, and church leaders are looking to sell and relocate. Sadly, the building has no historic designation to prevent it being demolished by a developer.

Phillips House homeowner Penny Moore feels that David Chapel is as tied to the legacy of the Rogers Washington Holy Cross District as any house within the historic district, and fears for its future.

If the church were demolished, she says, “it would break Chase’s legacy. It links to this house and it links to Mrs. Thompson’s house and it links to the whole community.”

Marla Akin
Marla Akin
Marla Akin is an enthusiast of cultural history and roadside America, currently serving on the board of the Society of Commercial Archeology. A postcard and vintage paper collector, she retired as Assistant Director of the UT Michener Center for Writers in 2018. She currently serves on the Sightlines board.

Related articles