John Saunders Chase, the first black licensed architect in Texas, is responsible for some of the finest examples of midcentury design still standing in East Austin. Chase, who died in 2012, was also one of the first two African-American students to enroll at the University of Texas in 1950 after the Sweatt v. Painter decision by the U.S. Supreme Court desegregated UT at the graduate level — making Chase also the first black graduate of the UT School of Architecture. Despite these historic firsts, Chase found himself shut out from any existing architecture firms in the state after graduation, and wound up starting his own practice in Houston, kicking off a roughly 50-year career.
If it weren’t for this early injustice, we might boast many more local examples of his work, but even so Chase left a legacy of several midcentury-era buildings still standing in East Austin including the Colored Teachers State Association at 1191 Navasota Street, the David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church at 2211 East MLK Jr. Boulevard, and the Della Phillips House at 2310 East MLK Jr. Boulevard.
The Phillips House in particular demonstrates Chase’s admiration of influential modernist Frank Lloyd Wright, with the home demonstrating many elements of Wright’s “Usonian” residential design philosophy — and this well-preserved residence could soon find itself listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with the Texas Historical Commission’s State Board of Review scheduled to consider the draft application for the Phillips House later this month.
Built in 1965, the house is located within East Austin’s recently-established Rogers-Washington-Holy Cross Historic District, a postwar neighborhood developed by and for black professionals with historic ties to many of the city’s most influential black residents including teacher and civil rights leader Willie Mae Kirk. Irene Thompson, a longtime education leader at the segregated Anderson High School, also lived in a home here designed by Chase in 1963.
Though the home features remarkable design inside and out, its defining feature is the unusual roof, which the draft nomination for the National Register describes as a “linear folded plate roofline with repeating green diamonds on the north and south elevations,” significantly cantilevered out from the walls of the structure to provide shaded outdoor space. You’ll find other folded plate roofs, a popular midcentury feature, in several structures around town including the now-demolished Mueller Airport terminal by famed Austin architect duo Fehr & Granger — but this element is less common in residential structures, and rarely so elegantly designed.
The Della Phillips House has excellent integrity to convey its historical and architectural significance. It retains exceptional integrity of setting and location in a remarkably intact postwar suburban neighborhood. A thoughtful restoration, which began in 2004, preserved and repaired the home’s character-defining features and design.
Chase’s deliberate choices of historic exterior and interior materials—African Mahogany, marble, river rock, pegboard soffits—are in excellent condition and intact throughout the house. The well-engineered and expressive cantilevered folded plate roof remains the focal point of the home’s exterior design, and while it needed some repairs, the river rock walls are intact as a weighty and textural counterbalance that give the building its proportion.
The interior, with character-defining open floor plan and curved wood partition, also shows excellent integrity of design and craftsmanship. With a preponderance of integrity of location, setting, design, materials, and workmanship intact, the Della Phillips House retains integrity of feeling and association as one of John S. Chase’s best residential architectural designs.
— Della Phillips House, National Register Nomination
First designed by Chase on behalf of client Della Phillips, a public-school teacher and co-owner of East Austin’s Phillips-Upshaw funeral home, the house accommodates the significant elevation change of its lot with a split-level design including an elevator:
Importantly, Chase’s design honored the needs and values of Della Phillips. The open-plan supported Phillips’ lifelong commitment to service and education by giving her a venue to host gatherings . . . Chase built the house into the hillside with a garage for Phillips’ cars below the house. He installed an elevator, an unusual feature in a house, to better accommodate Phillips, who walked with difficulty. Its progressive style and personal details, like the choice of African Mahogany, can be interpreted as architectural expressions of identity during a critical period in the Civil Rights Movement and which represented pride in the African American community and democratic values.
— Della Phillips House, National Register Nomination
Even as the surrounding neighborhood seeks similar historic recognition from the city, the inclusion of the Phillips House on the National Register is a critical step toward recognizing Chase as likely the most prominent architect of color represented in midcentury modernism — and certainly the state’s most significant black architect. With the process for submission to the National Register already underway, based on both the merit of the property and the way this application process works there’s virtually no chance this piece of East Austin history won’t receive its historic status — still, we’ll find out for sure when the State Board of Review meets on January 16.