Paying homage to one of its earliest Black students, UT Austin has purchased an historic commercial building designed by John Saunders Chase to serve as a community Engagement center. Chase was the first African American to attend the university’s School of Architecture and the first licensed Black architect in the state.
The 1,510-square-foot building, located at 1191 Navasota St. in East Austin, 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. The Association was instrumental in advancing many changes in the battle for equality for Black teachers and students. Since the late 1960s until its recent purchase by the university, the building served as the House of Elegance Beauty Salon, an iconic East Austin business with many notable customers including Barbara Jordan.
Few alterations have been made to the building, which has been described as a design that expresses the transition from International Style with Post-War machine age detailing to the streamlined mid-century modern vernacular.
Architectural historian and Rice University professor Stephen Fox summarized Chase’s genius as an architect. He told the Daily Texan in 2013, “Chase mobilized modern architecture as a democratic process, and his buildings embraced the future that was determined to be better than the past and the present.”
The university has hired the East Austin firm Carter Design Associates, led by Donna Carter, to help develop plans for remodeling the building in collaboration with the UT Austin Planning Management and Construction Services group.
“Chase’s architecture has left an indelible mark on communities in Austin and throughout Texas,” says 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 was previously housed on East 11th Street in the Marvin C. Griffin Building for nearly ten years and is currently located in the Centennial Towers Building off of Airport Boulevard.
“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,” says Leonard N. Moore, vice president for diversity and community engagement. “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.”