Edward A. Feiner, who spearheaded the General Services Administration’s design excellence program as GSA’s chief architect from 1996-2005, died on July 1. The cause of death was a brain tumor. Feiner was 75.
“Ed’s intellect, his passion, his energy,” and his outsized personality made him “a force to be reckoned with,” says Leslie L. Shepherd, Feiner’s second-in-command at GSA and successor as chief architect.
“He changed the design and construction of public buildings,” adds Shepherd, who left his post in 2016 and is currently a vice president and national director of GSA programs at Leo A Daly, a multidisciplinary design firm.
In announcing his retirement from GSA in early January 2005, Feiner, then 58, said, "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 added that his biological clock was running out. "This can't be a nursing home," he said, hoping change would come "in an elegant and graceful manner."
Crew Cut and Cowboy Boots
The New York City native, known for his unbridled enthusiasm, his crew cut and his cowboy boots, joined GSA in 1981. After leaving in early 2005, Feiner worked at architect-engineer Skidmore Owings & Merrill and the Las Vegas Sands Corp. before landing at Perkins&Will in 2009, where he became director of the firm’s design leadership council.
When Feiner retired from GSA, Robert C. Hixon, Jr., who spent nearly 35 years at GSA before moving to the Architect of the Capitol's office in 2004, said, "Ed has done a phenomenal job."
Comparing the boxy buildings GSA built in the 1960s and 70s and the ones constructed after the design excellence program began, in 1994, Hixon called the difference “unbelievable.”
GSA’s construction excellence program was then shaped after the design excellence program. Even State Dept. buildings were affected by GSA’s design excellence, says Shepherd, who had breakfast every week with Feiner for the last 17 years and was at his bedside when he died.
Under the program, a board composed of GSA and private-sector members—architect peers—reviews submissions from design firms and draws up a short list. After much study, the peer-review panel ranks the submissions and GSA selects a winner.
Feiner personally reviewed and approved the conceptual designs of all federal courthouses developed by GSA from 1985 through 2005. He said in a 2005 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 on the peer review panel grappled with how to react.
The position of supervising architect of the U.S. dates back to the early 19th century at the Treasury Dept. But it was abolished in the 1930s. In 1996, Robert Peck, GSA's Public Buildings Service commissioner at the time, decided to re-establish the chief architect's position and picked Feiner, who basically, but unofficially, had been the agency's lead design official.
"Ed's accomplishment consisted of coming from within and knowing how to institutionalize the change,” Peck said, at the time of Feiner’s retirement.
GSA's Green Buildings Standard
As chief architect, Feiner also set the course for GSA's green buildings standard and for a performance-based approach to designing federal buildings for security.
He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. His other honors include the Augustus St. Gaudens Award in 1997 from the Cooper Union Alumni Association, the AIA Thomas Jefferson Award for public architecture, an ENR Newsmaker award in 2001 for the design excellence program and the Presidential Rank Award for Meritorious Service in 2003.
Before his 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 graduate of Cooper Union with a bachelor’s in architecture and the Catholic University of America, with a master’s in architecture in urban design.
At the time of Feiner’s retirement from GSA, then Public Buildings Service Commissioner F. Joseph Moravec said his "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."