Edward Feiner, first chief architect for the U.S. government, dies at 75

Edward A. Feiner, who brought style and prestige to the once shabby design of federal office buildings, overseeing the construction and renovation of agency headquarters, border stations and courthouses across the country as chief architect of the U.S. government, died July 1 at a nursing home in Falls Church, Va. He was 75.

The cause was brain cancer, said his wife, Frances Feiner.

Mr. Feiner was regarded as an institution at the General Services Administration, the agency tasked with managing the sprawling federal real estate portfolio and where he worked for nearly a quarter-century. He served as chief architect from 1996 until his retirement in 2005.

With his crew cut and cowboy boots, he stood out among button-down bureaucrats and mod architects alike. By the end of his career, Mr. Feiner had earned the respect if not reverence of both with his leadership of one of the most expansive public construction projects since the New Deal.

“He championed the idea that federal buildings could and should have excellent designs that stem from our best talent and our highest ideals as a democracy,” General Services Administrator Robin Carnahan said in a statement after Mr. Feiner’s death. “His legacy is nothing less than a bolstered relationship between the American people and their government.”

The federal government had long cultivated a proud architectural tradition, from the Roman and Greek styles favored at the founding of the American democracy to the Art Deco flourishes used in many projects of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. But by the 1960s and 1970s, such ambitions had dimmed considerably, and the typical government building became bland and utilitarian, the stylistic equivalent of a cardboard box.

Mr. Feiner, who saw that trend as a manifestation of the “mistrust” of government that festered among many Americans during the Vietnam War and Watergate era, sought to restore the design of federal office buildings to a place of pride.

Whether the space was a courtroom or a post office, he told Esquire magazine in 2003, “we want people to feel welcome, to have a degree of esteem for themselves and for their government.”

Mr. Feiner oversaw the creation of a program known as Design Excellence, founded on the ideals of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the future U.S. senator from New York who, as an aide in the Kennedy administration in 1962, formulated a list of “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture.” One of them held that “design must flow from the architectural profession to the government, and not vice versa.”

Mr. Feiner overhauled the selection of federal building designs, eliminating the copious red tape that had skewed the process in favor of established firms with entire departments trained in navigating the bureaucratic morass.

Also in deference to Moynihan’s principles — Moynihan had declared that “the advice of distinguished architects ought to, as a rule, be sought prior to the award of important design contracts” — Mr. Feiner enlisted the advice of teams of architects in the awarding of contracts.

His tenure at GSA followed a period of austerity during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and coincided with a $10 billion program for the renovation and construction of government facilities.

He led a facelift of federal offices and border stations. (Of the entry points he told the Wall Street Journal, “You should look forward to something that’s decent rather than going through what looks like a men’s room.”) But he became best known for his role in the construction of more than 150 courthouses to better accommodate the burgeoning federal judiciary and docket. Courthouses had become so overcrowded that proceedings were being conducted in spaces more suited for budgetary meetings of middle management.

“If we’re not willing to portray our government institutions as dignified and stable,” Mr. Feiner told The Washington Post in 1998, “what sort of services can we expect from them?”

Mr. Feiner worked alongside U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock and federal appeals court judge Stephen G. Breyer (later elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court), both of whom insisted that the design of federal courthouses befit the lofty functions carried out inside them.

The most noted courthouses built under the guidelines Mr. Feiner established included the waterfront John Joseph Moakley courthouse in Boston designed by Henry N. Cobb and Ian Bader of Pei Cobb Freed; the gleaming white Alfonse M. D’Amato courthouse in Central Islip, N.Y., designed by Richard Meier; and the glistening Wayne Lyman Morse courthouse in Eugene, Ore., designed by Thom Mayne.

Mr. Feiner had to contend with cost overruns and complaints from lawmakers including U.S. Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.), who decried the Boston courthouse, with its six-story atrium, as a “Taj Mahal” and an “absolutely obscene waste of taxpayers’ dollars.”

Mr. Feiner took the position that a decade down the line, the expense would be barely noticeable. What would be noticeable, he insisted, was the courthouse.

In 2004, New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote that some of the projects created under Mr. Feiner’s leadership “rank among the great examples of American civic architecture — as important, in our day, as the neo-Classical monuments of a century ago.”

Edward Alan Feiner was born in Manhattan on Oct. 16, 1946, and grew up in the Bronx. His father manufactured metal garbage cans, and his mother was a homemaker.

After graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School, Mr. Feiner enrolled at Cooper Union in New York, where he received a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1969. Two years later, he received a master’s degree, also in architecture, from Catholic University in Washington.

He spent most of his early career working for the Navy, designing missile bases, hospitals and other facilities, before joining GSA in 1981. He was the first person at the agency to hold the rank of chief architect.

After his government retirement, he joined the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and later Perkins & Will.

Survivors include his wife of 54 years, the former Frances Freeman of Arlington, Va.; two children, Lance Feiner of Arlington and Melissa Rockholt of Leesburg, Va.; and three grandchildren.

In a world where most objects in life, from coffee cups to smartphones, seem disposable or replaceable, Mr. Feiner found satisfaction and meaning in the permanence of his work.

“Commercial buildings come and go,” he once told the publication Fast Company. “But it is our public buildings that will be here long after we’re gone.”

He liked to think, he said, that “there’s a little bit of me” in each of them.

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