Paying homage to one of its earliest black students, The University of Texas at Austin has purchased an historic commercial building designed by John Saunders Chase, the first African American to attend the university’s School of Architecture, to serve as a community engagement center.
The 1,450-square-foot building is at 1191 Navasota St. in East Austin and is thought to be Chase’s first commercial building design. It was built in 1952 to serve as the headquarters for the Colored Teachers State Association of Texas and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Through the years few alterations have been made to the building, which has a minimalist and modernistic design in the tradition of the Machine Age and International Style.
Chase, the first licensed African American architect in the state, often acknowledged that he was most influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and Paul Williams, a black Los Angeles architect who designed many of Los Angeles’ public buildings and homes for Hollywood stars beginning in the 1920s. In a 2004 interview, Chase said that the functional needs of the Colored Teachers State Association and the shape of the lot probably most influenced his design of the structure, which has a T-shaped footprint. The university has hired the East Austin firm Carter Design Associates, led by Donna Carter, to develop plans for remodeling the building.
“Chase’s architecture has left an indelible mark on communities in Austin and throughout Texas,” said UT Austin President Gregory L. Fenves. “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.”
The Community Engagement Center, part of the university’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE), was previously housed on East 11th Street in the Marvin C. Griffin Building for nearly 10 years and is currently located in the Centennial Towers Building off of Airport Boulevard.
Leonard Moore, interim vice president for diversity and community engagement, said: “The DDCE is honored to help preserve the legacy of John Chase. Given the building’s history, what better way to recognize Chase’s extensive contributions than to utilize the space he built to partner with the community.”
The Colored Teachers State Association of Texas was instrumental in advancing many changes in the battle for equality for black teachers and students. It established the Commission on Democracy in Education (CODE) to equalize teacher salaries through legal action and often partnered with the NAACP. Its members continued to advocate for educational advances until the organization (which dropped the word “Colored” from its name after 1955) disbanded in 1966, transferring its assets and members to CODE.
CODE began leasing the building at 1191 Navasota St. to the Pease family for use as The House of Elegance, a beauty salon, in operation until recently. The Pease family purchased the building in 1972.
Moore said: “With a commitment to helping address issues concerning access and equity through the lenses of health, education, housing and law, the Community Engagement Center serves as the front porch of the university. We are excited to build that front porch in a community we value, on a building that was designed by Longhorn family and that served black educators across the state for many years.”