Photo: Houston Chronicle Photo Library, Houston Chronicle Files
Chasing Perfection, a two-part exhibit about the work, life and legacy of pioneering Houston architect John Saunders Chase, opened this week at two Houston Public Library locations.
Chase, whose local design portfolio includes the George R. Brown Convention Center, various buildings on the Texas Southern University campus and several local churches, broke barriers on many fronts to become one of the most influential black architects of the 20th century.
After earning a degree at Hampton University, Chase became the first black person to enroll in a major university in the South in 1950 by studying at the University of Texas at Austin. He was the first black graduate of UT’s architecture school, finishing in 1952, and became the state’s first black licensed architect.
After a brief time teaching architectural drafting at TSU, John S. Chase opened his namesake firm in 1952. He became the first black person to be admitted to the Texas Society of Architects and to the Houston Chapter of The American Institute of Architects.
The work and life exhibition at the Julia Ideson Building, 550 McKinney, features architectural drawings including his designs of cultural landmarks in Washington, D.C.: the national headquarters of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and the national headquarters of The Links Inc. Other items on display from his personal collection include photographs and scrapbooks.
A supplemental show at the African American Library at the Gregory School discusses Chase’s legacy through profiles of architects who worked with him and those he mentored and influenced over the years – as well as their companies and projects. The exhibit was curated by Danielle Wilson.
“I was very much impressed,” said his widow, Drucie Chase, who donated her late husband’s materials to the library. The drawing archive is housed at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center and the personal archive at the Gregory School.
“I hope it encourages young students to pursue their dreams,” she said.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner was among the dignitaries, relatives, friends and admirers who attended the exhibition’s opening reception Tuesday night, which would have been Chase’s 93rd birthday.
“What an amazing history by an outstanding Houstonian … whose spirit still lives,” the mayor said. “We are all standing on his shoulders.”
John Chase Jr. said his father set “a standard of excellence” in his life and work.
“He was dedicated to perfection and making this city better,” the archiect’s eldest son said. “I just hope that as people go through this city and look at all of the beautiful structures and edifices, they remember my father.”
Born in 1925 in Maryland, John Chase was a youngster when he connected with design. He approached his manual arts teacher about “how to put things together,” his wife recounted, and was told he was describing a career as an architect. He designed the tombstone of his maternal grandmother at 8 or 9 years old, Drucie Chase said.
When the couple moved to Houston, John Chase worked at TSU but couldn’t get a job with any architecture firm.
“That’s how he ended up going into business for himself,” Drucie Chase said. “He wanted to work in an architect’s office as an architect.”
Churches were his earliest clients, she said. His experience drove him to entrepreneurship, which created a venue for future architects to train with a black professional. In Houston, he became the mentor he never found and his legacy endures through his acolytes.
Also in the 1950s, Chase built a modernist home for his family in Riverside Terrace.
“We traveled all over the world together,” Drucie Chase said of her husband. “We had a very good life together.”
In 1971, he was among the founders of the National Organization of Minority Architects, known as NOMA. He also was the first black person to serve on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and was the first black president of the UT alumni association, Texas Exes.
John Chase died in 2012 at the age of 87. His survivors include his wife and three children – John Chase Jr., Anthony “Tony” Chase and Saundria Chase Gray.
Chasing Perfection is free and open to the public through June 2.
Related programs include a panel discussion of local architects who worked with Chase – and those mentored and influenced by him – at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27 at the African American Library at the Gregory School, 1300 Victor.
“An Evening with Mrs. Drucie Chase” is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8 and also will be hosted at the African American Library at the Gregory School.