History of Austin

Trailblazing African-American architect's east side building acquired by University of Texas

UT acquires trailblazing African-American architect's Austin building

John Saunders Chase building
John Saunders Chase's first building was built on Navasota Street in East Austin. Courtesy photo

The University of Texas at Austin has just acquired a special part of the city's — and the nation's — history. On February 13, UT announced the purchase of a building in East Austin designed by architect John Saunders Chase, the first African-American architect licensed in the state of Texas, and among the first black students to enroll at UT.

Located at 1191 Navasota St., the 1,450-square-foot building is believed to be the first commercial building designed by Chase. Built in 1952, the modern, minimalist design was originally home to the Colored Teachers State Association of Texas. Throughout his career, the Maryland native pointed to Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Williams, another pioneering African-American architect, as influences. 

“By preserving this historic building, the university can commemorate Chase’s influence as an architect, especially in the East Austin community, and his legacy as one of UT’s first African-American students," said UT president Gregory L. Fenves in a release. 

It's impossible to understate the racial and cultural barriers broken by Chase. When he enrolled in UT in 1950 to pursue a master's degree in architecture, it was just two days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Sweatt v. Painter, a landmark desegregation case that paved the way for Brown v. The Board of Education in 1954. As The Alcalde notes in Chase's 2012 obituary, the newly minted grad student was chased through the campus by reporters and cameras, and the university received dozens of hateful letters decrying Chase's enrollment. 

"But for every negative thing that happened, I declare there was a positive," Chase told The Alcalde. "I had some great friends there, even during that time." Chase later went on to become the first African-American selected president of the Texas Exes, UT's prestigious and powerful alumni organization.

The university has hired East Austin firm Carter Design Associates to lead the remodel of its new Navasota acquisition. The firm specializes in the preservation of historic landmarks and has overseen such notable projects as the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, the Texas and Pacific Terminal in Fort Worth, and the restoration of Deep Eddy Pool.

Until recently, the building was owned by the Pease family and home to a beauty salon called the House of Elegance. The remodeled property will be the new home of UT's Community Engagement Center, a division of Diversity and Community Engagement.