An unassuming low-slung building stands at 1191 Navasota Street in East Austin, easy to overlook in the dense growth of the area’s real estate boom. Though now vacant, a sign identifies it as the House of Elegance, a beauty salon.
A closer look reveals surprisingly pristine midcentury details: a curious asymmetrical flat roof, a stylish porthole entryway, corrugated siding. For that architectural flair alone, the structure is known to design buffs.
Likewise the history of its use and creator has always held deep resonance for a generation in East Austin. Constructed in 1952 for $28,000 — including the cost of the lot — the compact modern building housed the offices of the Colored Teachers State Association of Texas, an organization that since the late 19th century promoted equality for African American students and educators, but had always met in the homes of members.
The association’s pride in creating its formal headquarters reflected a fitting choice of an architect. John Saunders Chase was one of the first two African Americans ever to enroll at the University of Texas at Austin, the first to graduate from UT’s School of Architecture, and the state’s first licensed African American architect.
National preservationists recognized the building’s significance, and in 2005, 1191 Navasota acquired National Historic Register status under Criteria A: Property is associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.
Now, in a fusion of history and function, UT recently announced that it had acquired the building — at a cost of $1,050,000 — to serve as the new Community Engagement Center of the University’s Division for Diversity and Community Engagement. Architect Donna Carter, who designed the George Washington Carver Museum & Cultural Center, will oversee remodeling of Chase’s building for its new use.
Historically, UT has had a fraught relationship with communities to the east of its campus, most notably the Blackland neighborhood, whose vigorous push-back against the powers that be over 30 years ago ended a long era of the university’s racially insensitive expansion.
Hence the symbolism behind UT’s current action reads clearly: The university spent a considerable sum to acquire a building important to Austin’s African American community and will use the address for its current efforts to help historically and currently under-served Austin communities.
John Saunders Chase and UT
A native of Maryland who earned his B.S. in architecture in Virginia in 1948, Chase moved to Austin where, by various accounts, he worked with East Austin homebuilders Lott Lumber Company; as an instructor at the Crescent Institute on E. 9th Street, “providing private instruction for coloreds in drafting” and other building arts, according to the 1949 city directory; and as a night school teacher at L.C. Anderson High.
Seeking to further credential himself, he naturally looked to UT as the nearest and best option for a professional degree. Except the university didn’t admit black students in 1949. Chase approached the dean of the School of Architecture and proposed a correspondence course; Chase wasn’t looking to break barriers or make history, just to learn.
But the landmark Sweatt v. Painter case, challenging the separate but equal doctrine allowing the segregation of graduate and professional programs, was already before the U.S. Supreme Court. Encouraged by the dean to await the court’s decision, Chase submitted his application.
Two days after the court’s desegregation ruling, Chase was admitted for the summer 1950 term. Reporters dogged his history-making registration at Gregory Gym, where one savvy AP photographer made a great point of waiting until he’d actually paid his tuition at the cashier cage—thereby being legally enrolled—before taking his shot. That photograph and others made news across the country.
But life in the extreme minority of the student body was a less than triumphant experience. Chase received hate mail, was followed by federal marshals, and found himself the only face of color in classes (undergraduates weren’t accepted into UT until 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education). Not allowed at businesses on the Drag, he was likewise barred from living in dorms. And so Chase bought a small house on East 22nd Street as close to campus as was allowed by segregation.
“I waded through some waters up there that I had never been in before,” he said in a 2006 interview now in the UT Briscoe Center archives. Later in life he would graciously recall there had been as many friendly supporters on campus as racist detractors, and he would go on to become the first African American president of the Texas Exes alumni association.
Chase produced an impressive master’s thesis, “Progressive Architecture in the Negro Baptist Church.” And it was no mere design project but an analysis of the acoustic and spatial needs of a church to serve the devotional practices of the congregation: singing, praying, baptism. He saw the potential of modernist, aspirational buildings to create for black congregations a future freed of the past, espousing the principles of social justice through democratic space-making.
In his thesis, Chase also cited his own influences as Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Williams of Los Angeles, an African American who designed the Hollywood homes of Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Barbara Stanwyck, as well as many public buildings.
Building a Career
After graduation Chase was offered the chance to head a proposed new architecture program at the all-black Prairie View A&M College. Because Sweatt v. Painter ruled UT had to admit minorities only when equal programs did not exist at minority institutions, taking the post would have meant closing UT’s door to other aspirants like himself. Instead, he accepted a job teaching architectural drafting at the Texas Southern University in Houston, and set about establishing himself as a practicing professional.
A professional degree did not, however, open doors. White firms wouldn’t hire him, wary of clients’ prejudices or the fears of white secretaries in the office. Chase decided to take his state boards and “hire himself.” The State of Texas was forced to grant Chase a license without the required internship as no company would employ him to earn those hours.
Chase’s first office was in the dining room of his own home, and his earliest commissions were small public buildings, offices — and churches, unsurprisingly.
Like many African Americans of the time, Chase relied socially and professionally on the community and sanctuary of church. Armed with his thesis, he and his wife Drucie introduced themselves to pastors who paved introductions to other churchgoers, resulting in church commissions and work planning the homes and businesses of fellow congregants. Not until the Jim Crow era ended did he begin to receive work on larger civic projects.
In his long and successful career, Chase went on to design many prominent buildings at Texas Southern University and on the University of Houston campus. He collaborated on the design of Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center and designed the 1989 renovations to the Astrodome.
Chase became the first African American member of the Texas Society of Architects and the Houston chapter of the AIA as well as the co-founder of the National Organization of Minorities in Architecture. During the Carter administration, Chase was the first African American appointed to the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts which under his tenure selected Maya Lin’s proposal for the Vietnam Memorial.
Chase’s Austin Footprint
Though Chase early on in his career relocated to Houston, where he would remain until his death, Austin played an early and important role in a career of pioneering achievements. His connections in the capital city included the builder Oliver Street, prominent in East Austin for over 40 years, community leader Everett Givens, and Oscar Thompson, who was the first African American to earn his degree at UT and went on to do important genetic research into sickle cell anemia.
Chase’s very first commission after graduate school was to redesign the now-demolished Deluxe Hotel at E. 11th and Navasota streets for a Mr. and Mrs. Reed, who paid his commission with three meals a day for six months.
The Colored Teachers State Association of Texas followed in 1952 (“colored” was dropped from the name three years later). Though constructed well past the heyday of the International Style, it echoes such machine-age details, still largely unchanged across the decades: the asymmetrical roof, the blending of concrete block masonry, banded brick, corrugated asbestos panels, and front cladding with horizontal stone.
When the association and its successor ceased operations in the building in the late 1960s, it was sold and became the House of Elegance under the ownership of Ella Mae Pease, who passed the salon on to her daughter Pearl Cox. The salon functioned as a social hub of the neighborhood and many former TSAT women had their hair done there. According to Brenda Malik of Austin’s African-American Cultural and Heritage Facility (who recalls it was the first beauty parlor she was ever inside), the salon was the first in the area to offer hair weaving.
Chase’s 1958 David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church still stands at the hilly corner of E. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. and Chestnut Avenue. A soaring angular roofline and glass corner details show the influence of Wright, as does the interior use of warm woods, natural lighting and simple geometric colored glass. A distinctive bell tower — said by some to mimic the nearby Moon Tower — also evokes in miniature the banded verticality of Wright’s only multistory office project, Price Tower, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma (1956).
Another of Chase’s modernist ecclesiastical projects, Olivet Baptist Church, was built in 1961 at the corner of San Bernard and Cotton streets, where the steep and angular façade of brick and glass stands in bold contrast to the wooden bungalows and late Victorians of the wide street.
Chase’s residential commissions in Austin included the modernist split-level Thompson House (1963), built on Maple Avenue in the Holy Cross neighborhood for Irene Thompson, a fixture of East Austin society and local politics. She was the longtime L.C. Anderson High school secretary and the widow of Chase’s contemporary at UT, Oscar Thompson. In a 2013 interview, Mrs. Thompson recalled how the house project came about, in a period of grief after her husband’s death. “Are you ready for a house?” Chase had asked her. “Let’s get you ready.”
Thompson House, like most on the block, is built on a hillside, a stone-faced garage at ground level with a deep porch above running the length of the house’s front elevation, faced entirely in glass and wood panels. The bold simplicity reflects Wright’s Usonian aesthetic of low roofs, cantilevered overhangs, and natural lighting.
On the same hillside but more publicly visible is the dramatically sited 1964 Phillips house at E. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. and Maple Avenue. It was commissioned by East Austin businesswoman and famed hostess Della Phillips, who gave Chase free rein to create the plan, stressing only her desire to entertain in the house. He responded with a large open main level, with remarkable natural light and flow.
Like the Thompson House, the second level of the Phillips House sits atop a rock ground level (accessible by elevator). A cantilevered balcony, the use of stone slabs, floor to ceiling windows, and the distinctive green folded plate roofline contribute to an iconic midcentury profile. The same roofline can be seen on Chase’s 1956 design for the Riverside (now Unity) National Bank, the first African-American owned bank in Houston.
A Fitting Homage
Chase, who died in 2012 at age 87, did not survive to see the adaptation of his building into UT’s Community Engagement Center, but that vision is entirely resonant with his own life choices.
Throughout his career, Chase used his own rising tide to lift all boats. He routinely hired minority designers, draftsmen, engineers. In a 1974 interview he boasted his firm was “the biggest UN of architects in this town. My secretary is Mexican, I’ve got a man from Nigeria…we’ve got three blacks from Houston, we’ve got a white, and we’ve got William Kwan, who is Chinese and born in Hong Kong. So I tell you we’ve got some of everybody.”
His business grew to include branches in Houston, Dallas, D.C., and Los Angeles, but he never left the predominantly black neighborhood of Riverside Terrace where he’d built his Houston offices early on — with the profits from selling the house on E. 22nd Street in Austin.