When Louis T. Chase died in early 1942, he was much more than a music man. He was the conscience of his church and the community, looking after people in need whether they could carry a tune or not.
For decades he played the organ and led the choir at the First Baptist Church of Columbus and the talented faculty of his family’s conservatory started teaching others to make music in 1882.
Music was his passion. Caring for the disadvantaged was his Christian calling. His years of unselfish service to the residents of North Highland and other parts of town were duly noted when the passing of this busy Baptist deacon became front-page news in the first few months of World War II.
Those events occurred a long time ago. Few people know about Chase or his talented family members these days. The Chase Conservatory of Music at 10th Street and Second Avenue closed its doors soon after his death, though the building survived until 1969.
The past wasn’t mentioned when the Housing Authority of Columbus recently announced plans to close and demolish Louis T. Chase Homes, a subsidized housing project that was named for the generous musician a decade after his death.
Local officials are concerned about the proximity of an electrical power station to the 17 buildings and 10 units of the public housing complex on First Avenue, just blocks away from the soul of Uptown Columbus.
Months ago, locals delivered their concerns to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington. They were turned down at first, but HUD officials recently relented and gave the local housing authority the green light to start taking down the buildings and offer housing vouchers to the impoverished residents of Chase.
And no one brought up the name of Professor Louis T. Chase.
George Williams Chase lived across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan. He was a trained musician and so was his wife Abbie. Their children — including son Louis — followed them into the world of sharps and flats.
When the Civil War began, the elder Chase joined the Confederate Army and became a bandmaster in units led by generals Stonewall Jackson and Henry Benning. The family migrated from Brooklyn to LaGrange, Ga. and then to Columbus.
Nearly 20 years after the war, he founded the Chase Conservatory of Music in Columbus. For the next 60 years it would encourage an appreciation of the arts and teach students to perform in a setting that was said to rival the New England Conservatory of Music and the Wesleyan Conservatory in Macon.
The family trained musicians and provided background music for the community. The campus of their conservatory included a 444-seat auditorium where impressive performances were frequently staged.
Even their young children got into the act.
During a large fair and exposition in 1890, Master George Chase played a coronet solo every day at 1:30 p.m. outside of one of the exhibits. The Enquirer-Sun offered this review: “Master George is six years old, but he is already an accomplished musician. The little fellow plays the instrument wonderfully well and wins compliments from visitors on all sides.”
Their father died in 1910 and brothers Louis and George took over the operation of the conservatory. Louis was already involved in the music program at the First Baptist Church and his siblings soon joined him.
Individually and collectively, members of the Chase family provided special music at the church for many years. They could provide ensembles that included a variety of instruments: Louis played the organ, George the violin, Effie the piano and Gertrude the harp.
It was a time when church music was formal and classical. The First Baptist choir, under Louis’s direction, still presented the same liturgical music that musicians did in 1861 when the first recorded reference to music was made during the pastorate of the Rev. James H. DeVotie. The first choir came along in 1872 and by 1900 the church was electing and paying its section leaders — many of them trained at the conservatory.
Louis T. Chase helped develop a strong music department at the church that has never wavered. He encouraged the membership to purchase instruments that were groundbreaking at the time. Organs were hand-pumped until 1913 when an electric motor was added.
But Louis T. Chase was interested in much more than music.
As chairman of the Board of Deacons he supported the founding of a ministry for the deaf in 1928 that flourished for many years. On a Sunday in November he sent out a letter of invitation to 20 people who could neither hear nor speak asking them to come to Sunday School. The teacher was Florie Parkman Wright, a descendant of one of the church’s earliest members.
An excerpt of his letter follows:
“We wish to furnish your class a special private room such as the other Sunday School classes have that will be large enough for your group. We hope you will not only meet on Sundays but as often as you wish for social meetings and a good time at the church during the week …”
Several years later, with the church and the community fighting off the pressures of the Great Depression, Chase sought help for needy people in need of housing and food. In a letter shared with his fellow deacons, he talked about the plight of people living around North Highland and what Christians should be doing:
“Our church and our Sunday School should take steps to help these people in a religious and spiritual way.”
In the late 1930s, the church sought to replace its original organ with a more modern instrument. Chase was part of that movement but by the time it was installed in 1937, declining health forced him to resign as the church organist. His eventual replacement was Miss Frances Arnold, a graduate of the Chase Conservatory.
Louis T. Chase died in 1942, just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Three colleagues at First Baptist co-authored a resolution in honor of their fellow deacon:
“The board of deacons feels that it has sustained an irreparable loss, and one which will be felt in the entire church. For more than 50 years, he has endeared himself to old and young alike by his unselfish service and sympathetic regard for the needs of others. His consistent Christian character, his humble walk with the Master, and his deep devotion to the cause of the poor have endeared him to every heart. The fragrant memory of his life among us will furnish inspiration and courage to those who remain to carry on his work.”
It would be 10 years before the local housing authority honored his devotion by the naming of the Louis T. Chase Homes. Time has passed and soon the housing project that was named for him will be leveled.
If he were here today, Chase would be openly concerned about the relocation of the current residents in an area of town that for some reason grabbed his heart. He would look past some people’s desire to clear an attractive path down Second Avenue so visitors won’t have to look into the windows of a housing project and so white water rafters on the Chattahoochee will have something pretty to see.
The music that Louis T. Chase made is quiet and his hands-on efforts to help the poor are peaceful and still. He was a man of harmony who wanted the hungry to be fed and the homeless to have a bed. As public officials prepare to demolish the units named in his honor, hopefully someone will pick up those worthy batons.