Edward Feiner, the US government’s first chief architect, dies at the age of 75

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

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

Mr. Feiner was considered an institution with the General Services Administration, the agency charged with managing the federal government’s sprawling real estate portfolio and where he served for nearly a quarter of a century. From 1996 until his retirement in 2005 he was chief architect.

With his cropped silhouette and cowboy boots, he stood out from bureaucrats and mod architects alike. By the end of his career, Mr. Feiner had earned the respect, if not awe, of both of them for overseeing one of the largest public works projects since the New Deal.

“He championed the idea that federal buildings could and should have excellent designs, grounded in our best talents and our highest ideals as a democracy,” General Services Administrator Robin Carnahan said in a statement following Mr. Feiner’s death. “His legacy is nothing short of a strengthened relationship between the American people and their government.”

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

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

Whether it was a courtroom or a post office, he told Esquire magazine in 2003, “We want people to feel welcome and to have some level of appreciation for themselves and for their government.”

Mr. Feiner oversaw the creation of a program called Design Excellence, founded on the ideals of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the future US Senator from New York, who in 1962, as an adviser to the Kennedy administration, published a list of “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture.” One of them believed that “design must flow from the architectural profession to government and not the other way around”.

Mr. Feiner revised the selection of federal building designs and eliminated the cumbersome bureaucracy that had skewed the process in favor of established firms with entire departments trained to navigate the bureaucratic morass.

Also in keeping with Moynihan’s principles – Moynihan had stated that “the advice of respected architects should normally be sought before any major design commissions are awarded” – Mr. Feiner sought the advice of architectural teams when awarding contracts.

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

He carried out a facelift of federal offices and border stations. (About the entry points, he told The Wall Street Journal, “You should look forward to something decent instead of going through what looks like a men’s restroom.”) But he’s best known for his role in building more than 150 courthouses around better accommodate the burgeoning federal jurisdiction and routing slip. The courthouses were so overcrowded that proceedings were held in rooms better suited for middle management budget meetings.

“If we are not willing to present our governmental institutions as dignified and stable,” Mr. Feiner told the Washington Post in 1998, “then what kind of services can we expect from them?”

Mr. Feiner worked with US District Judge Douglas Woodlock and Federal Circuit Court Judge Stephen G. Breyer (later elevated to US Supreme Court Justice), both of whom insisted that the design of federal courthouses reflect the high functions performed within them.

Among the most famous courthouses built to the guidelines established by Mr. Feiner were the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse on Boston’s waterfront, designed by Henry N. Cobb and Ian Bader by Pei Cobb Freed; Alfonse M. D’Amato’s gleaming white courthouse in Central Islip, NY, designed by Richard Meier; and Wayne Lyman Morse’s glittering courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, designed by Thom Mayne.

Mr. Feiner has had to deal with cost overruns and complaints from lawmakers, including U.S. Senator John S. McCain (R-Ariz.), who dubbed the Boston courthouse, with its six-story atrium, the “Taj Mahal” and “an absolutely obscene waste of taxpayers’ money.”

Mr. Feiner took the position that the costs would hardly be felt in a decade. What would stand out, he insisted, was the courthouse.

In 2004, The New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote that some of the projects that emerged under Mr. Feiner’s direction “are among the great examples of American urban architecture – as important in our day as the neoclassical monuments before one century.”

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

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 the Catholic University of Washington.

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

After retiring from government he joined the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and later Perkins & Will.

Survivors include his 54-year-old wife, former Frances Freeman of Arlington, Virginia; two children, Lance Feiner of Arlington and Melissa Rockholt of Leesburg, Virginia; and three grandchildren.

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

“Commercial buildings come and go,” he once told Fast Company magazine. “But it is our public buildings that will remain here long after we are gone.”

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

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