John S. Chase
Mid-Century Modern, Modernist
Historic Status:
National Register of Historic Places (in review)


The 2,700-square-foot Della Phillips House, completed in 1965, is an exuberant Mid-Century Modernist landmark in Austin. Identifiable by its projecting, bright green, line-of-diamonds folded roof, the house below is organized as a T-shaped box. The “stem” holds the open, window-lined public rooms, which are set over a garage partly buried in the sloping site. The “top” of the T holds private rooms and a walled side yard. Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian concepts, the building is an early masterwork of John S. Chase—the first Black man licensed as an architect in Texas—who also designed the formally related David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church located diagonally across East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.


The Della Phillips House, an early masterwork by the architect John S. Chase, is one of the best Modernist houses in Austin. It is progressive, rigorous, optimistic, and populist. Wedged into the slope of a prominent corner site on a major through street, with a line of repeating, green-trimmed, diamond-shaped, folded slab roof beams floating over copious windows and a river rock retaining wall, the Phillips House is utterly memorable. It serves as a landmark—along with Chase’s nearby David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church—to the Rogers, Washington, and Holy Cross subdivisions, which were developed by African Americans after World War II, and together comprise a local historic district.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Chase—who appealed to the state of Texas for licensure after no white architect would hire him for an internship—was flooded with commissions from a rising Black middle and professional class. To this particular work he brought Modernism’s reductive abstraction, justified by its essential hope for a new order. Chase had already completed buildings—including the 1962 Thompson House (around the corner on Maple Street)—working with the stripped-down minimalism associated with the aesthetic elitism of Mies van der Rohe. But he increasingly found his design voice in the upbeat, nearly decorative populism associated with the Usonian work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Phillips House is early evidence of that pivot. The house was designed for the prominent educator and civic activist Della Phillips, who also co-ran the Phillips-Upshaw Funeral Home, which her deceased husband had co-founded. Within the geometric rigor given by the grid of piers supporting the repetitive, folded plate roof, Chase organized the house as a block of screened private rooms looking into a walled side yard, set perpendicular to a block of glass-walled, universal public space. This may have been just too radical for the progressive Mrs. Phillips, though. The house’s great charm is that, when you open the front door into the universal public area, you are met with a long translucent screen wall that hides the dining area, kitchen, and sitting room, and properly delivers you to the living area, re-establishing a traditional hierarchy within the open social world the house proposes. – David Heymann, FAIA

Photo Credits:

Bud Franck, AIA (1-7); James & Penny Moore (8-10)