Feiner credited with spearheading design excellence program

Edward A. Feiner, the General Services Administration’s chief architect since 1996, says he is retiring, effective Jan. 31, and exploring a job in the private sector. Feiner, 58, says he probably will join an architectural firm, which he didn't name, and remain in the Washington, D.C., area.

In a Jan. 3 email announcing his retirement, Feiner said, "This is the right time for me to try new things and to provide an opportunity for new leaders to build on what has been accomplished. Feiner says he wasn’t asked to leave.

The New York City native, who joined GSA in 1981, spearheaded its design excellence program, which drew prominent architects to compete for the agency's courthouses and other projects.

GSA Public Buildings Service Commissioner F. Joseph Moravec said Feiner's "commitment to the proposition that our public buildings should reflect the best aspects of American civilization has helped to establish our agency as one of the nation's premier patrons of architecture. His work has had a profound impact on communities across the country, and his legacy will endure as long as our buildings stand."


Robert C. Hixon, Jr., who spent nearly 35 years at GSA before moving to the Architect of the Capitol's office last March, says "Ed has done a phenomenal job." Hixon says that comparing the boxy buildings GSA built in the 1960s and 1970s and the ones constructed after the design excellence program began, "It's just unbelievable what the difference has been."

Feiner "has been involved in every one of those projects personally," adds Hixon, whom Feiner recruited to come to GSA's headquarters in 2000 to run its "construction excellence" program.

Feiner, who sports a crew cut and western-style boots, said in an interview with ENR that after putting design firms through the "torture" of GSA reviews and his own comments, "part of me wanted to be in that back room," where the private architects grappled with how to react.

Feiner's announcement took some by surprise. He says, "I am an open book....I don't hold back anything." But he says that he kept his decision to retire close to the vest.

He says, "I felt this was a very good time to do it, because we have some very good leadership [at GSA] that believe in the importance [of] design and GSA's role as a leader in design and construction."

He says that he is in the "final stages of decision" about his next job, but plans to stay near Washington where his wife and children are. Some long-time federal managers move to the private sector for higher pay. But Feiner says, "The economics were really not the issue in my case. I felt that my biological clock was running out."

He adds, "I also realized that at some point I would have to be replaced" as chief architect. "This can't be a nursing home." And he says it would be better if the change was done "in an elegant and graceful manner."

Feiner joined GSA in 1981 as director of after design management, after he answered an ad he saw in the Washington Post. In 1996, Robert Peck, the PBS commissioner at the time, decided to re-establish the Chief Architect's position and picked Feiner, who basically, but unofficially, was the agency's lead design official.

Feiner says that the position of "supervising architect of the United States" dates back to the early 19th Century at the Treasury Dept. But it was abolished in the 1930s. He expects the position to continue at GSA after his retirement, but no announcement of a successor has been made.

Peck, now president of the Washington, D.C., Board of Trade, says that while Feiner's announcement was a "bomb," he wasn't completely surprised by the news, saying he "also sort of had this sense that Ed got this feeling he probably accomplished more than he ever thought he would" a decade ago. Peck says that the federal government was a leader in architecture for about 150 years, "and then totally lost its way for almost half a century." Some observers hoped Uncle Sam's design leadership would return, Peck says. "For most of us, Ed helped realize that dream."

Sometimes in big organizations, innovations don't continue after their champions retire or leave. But Peck, Public Buildings Service Commissioner from 1995 to early 2001, thinks design excellence is likely to remain part of GSA. He says, "Ed's accomplishment consisted of coming from within and knowing how to institutionalize the change.' Undoing design excellence now "could be done, but you'd have to work at it," Peck says, by changing how the agency selects its architects and reviews projects.

He adds that in the recent past, superior architecture wasn't part of GSA's culture. But he says, "One reason I think that [design excellence] will outlast [Feiner] is that the vast majority of the managers at GSA realize what they didn't before, which is doing exceptional work really worked to their advantage and not against."

Feiner has had only limited experience in the private sector, including a job with a New York landscape architect, while he was in college at Cooper Union.

But most of his career has been with the federal government. Before his long tenure at GSA, Feiner spent 11 years with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, interrupted by a job with Gruen Associates. At NAVFAC, he focused mainly on planning, and rose to be become head of its master planning branch.

Feiner is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and his other honors include The Augustus St. Gaudens Award in 1997 from the Cooper Union Alumni Association an ENR Newsmaker award for 2001, and the Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Service in 2003.

Peck says he's told people "I'm glad [Feiner's retirement] wasn't on my watch." He adds, "These are very hard shoes to fill--or cowboy boots to fill."

(Photo by General Services Administration)