MEET THE ARCHITECT: EDGAR ROBERT FIRANT, AIA
Text by Pam VanderPloeg copyright West Michigan Modern, 2016.
1917 Born in Oak Park, Illinois
1940 Completed architectural degree at Armour Institute of Technology, Chicago, Illinois. Studied under Mies van de Rohe.
1940 Married Painter Gerda Elisabeth Firant and had one daughter, Laurel Firant, Composer
1955 -1972Designed churches, custom executive homes, schools and commercial buildings
1961 Received citation for Church design, National Association of Evangelical Church Group for the Christian Catholic Church, Zion, Illinois
1968 Received James F. Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation Award for Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in Comstock Park
1970 Received AIA Grand Valley Chapter Award for Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church
1972 Died at 55 in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Meet the Architect Edgar Robert Firant, AIA
When I entered Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, I was immediately impressed with the pairs of enormous structural steel arches that meet in the middle and frame a square skylight at the center. There is no attempt to disguise the structure — the architect stressed that it was meant to be “simple, honest and modern.” The skylight fills the sanctuary with light, and according to the architect, “symbolically brings heaven and earth together.”
"Churches should be a spark for their faith, " saidWest Michigan Architect, Edgar R. Firant, AIA, when he designed Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church on Alpine Church Road in Comstock Park, Michigan. The new church replaced a relatively new structure built in 1957 and destroyed by a devastating tornado on Palm Sunday,1965. Firant won the James F. Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation National Competition in Design in 1968 and a design award from the Grand Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Architecture in 1970 for the design of this church.
Firant believed in the integrity of design and materials in architecture. He said, "A church must look like a church…If an altar is to look like marble, then use marble…Fakery and falseness have no place in a church." At Holy Trinity, the massive steel arches mingle with warm wood ceiling boards. Both the exterior and the interior walls of the church are simple brick arranged in an unusual pattern that adds beauty and required fewer bricks, creating significant savings for the congregation. Being brick, the interior walls were designed to required no additional attached ornaments.
Participants enter the church via a paved garden meant to create a transition from their own world to a shared community experience. Simple, elegant wooden pews are arranged to bring worshipper and worship leader close together, a trend in Catholic church design at the time. A sloping ceiling enhances the worship experience with flawless acoustics, a Firant design trademark. Another signature of Firant's work was custom sanctuary furniture, taking the form here of a pair of stunning modern wood screens that could be moved to create a more intimate space for smaller gatherings, or moved to open up the space for larger groups. Unfortunately, they are now gone.
Firant came to Grand Rapids with his young family in 1955. He was born in 1917 in Oak Park, Illinois to Lithuanian immigrant parents. Firant finished his architectural training in 1940 at the Armour Institute of Technology (now Illinois Institute of Technology or ITT). His work was strongly influenced by his teacher and mentor, internationally renowned architect Mies van de Rohe, who designed many of the ITT campus buildings. In fact, Firant graduated with the second highest scholastic record ever achieved at that time in the architecture department. In 1944, during World War II, Firant taught at ITT in the Navy V-12 Program in Descriptive Geometry. That same year, he married talented painter Gerda Elisabeth Swanson who completed both her BFA and MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The keeper of Firant's legacy is his daughter, composer and journalist Laurel Firant. She described her father's work to West Michigan Modern:
My father's architecture beautifully combines vision with integrity. While meeting the needs of his clients with structurally sound engineering, his work is also often transcendent in design, especially in the many churches he built. They have a clarity, strength and boldness that reflect his dedication and love of architecture."
Original documents — original presentation boards, a scrapbook of newspapers clippings from the time and church dedication booklets kept by Elisabeth — shed light on Firant’s work. Laurel also has many memories of her father’s discussions of work projects, and she remembers visiting job sites and meeting some of his associates and clients.
Before coming to Grand Rapids, Firant worked for Childs & Smith in Chicago from 1945-47, and then worked in Phoenix, Arizona for Lescher and Mahoney from 1947-1952. At that time Phoenix, Arizona was growing by leaps and bounds and was the epicenter of mid-century modern design in the desert. Firant then returned to Chicago and practiced with Perkins & Will from 1953-1954.
Then, moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1955, Firant became West Michigan Manager for the Detroit architectural firm H.E. Beyster & Associates. He designed the new and larger Hemlock, Ravenna and Rockford High Schools during the post-World War II building boom.
While working for Beyster, Firant also brought an innovative proposal to the City of Grand Rapids. The idea was to create a grassy, scenic pedestrian mall on Monroe Avenue, downtown. He stressed that the infrastructure was already in place, including two thirds of the roadways on the periphery saying, “No area of the shopping district would be more than a block away from transportation.” Commissioner Stanley Davis called the idea “revolutionary” and Mayor Paul Goebel stated that he was “willing to look at anything that will make Grand Rapids a better community.” But although a similar idea was in the planning stages in the nearby city of Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids was not quite ready, at that time, to implement such an “advanced plan.”
Edgar Firant also worked for a time as a designer for the J. & G. Daverman firm before starting his own practice. There he met colleague Thomas Bisbee, who later worked for Firant on church design.
In 1956, Edgar R. Firant designed his own lovely modern home on Breton Road in East Grand Rapids which retains its expansive grounds and courtyard garden, oak parquet floors, beautiful built-in storage and shelving units, bedroom/bathroom wing, original modern furniture and lighting fixtures, andseparate connected apartment with bay window. Surely he was planning ahead when he incorporated a light-filled walkout level studio, where he was able to launch his own firm in 1959.
One of Firant's most innovative and celebrated churches, the Christian Catholic Church in Zion Illinois designed in 1959, may have been the pivotal commission that enabled Firant to start his own firm from his home studio-office on Breton Road. Later move his practice to an office on Atlas Street in the Eastown neighborhood. The Christian Catholic Church replaced earlier church buildings in Zion that were destroyed in an April,1959 fire. Firant studied the history, traditions, theology and doctrine to create a functional and aesthetically beautiful design that met the congregation’s needs.
Characteristics are the brilliance of the bright white facade and the beauty of the structural shape. Firant told the Grand Rapids Press Feature writer, "The theme of the Trinity is suggested in the striking form of the church, and the triangular alter, flanked on each side by choir lofts.” In the center between the choir lofts was a screen of bronze crosses and at the left, a hooded pulpit. In Firant's words, the church was "ultra-modern," and "designedto hold 800 worshipers all no more than 80 feet from the pulpit …" The desire to bring congregants and ministers together in worship informed the triangular forms of the design. The stunning, modern 50-foot stained glass window was designed by artist Gerda Firant. The Christian Catholic Church was awarded a citation for church design from the National Association of Evangelical Churches.
During his career in Grand Rapids, Firant also designed several extraordinary homes in West Michigan. The Firants had moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1955. Gerda’s brother, Dr. Alfred B. Swanson, was a Grand Rapids based orthopedic surgeon who became world renowned for his invention of flexible silicone implants that restored function in arthritic and damaged joints of the hand. In 1961, Firant designed the Swanson House on Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids with a gorgeous three-story glass wall facing Reeds Lake. The home features vertical panels of Phillippino mahogany, a building material popular at the time that, when left unstained, would weather to a silvery tone. Dr. Swanson lived in the Reeds Lake home until his recent passing in April, 2016. This iconic home has undergone alterations, but is predominantly intact.
Another fine example of Firant’s residential design is the brick and frame Edgar residence on Idema S.E., also in East Grand Rapids. It features an unusually long, horizontal profile. Add to this list the Reeds Lake Boulevard home of the Dr. Frank Thompson family. The Thompson home was sited on the highest point of a lot that slopes gently toward the beach on Reeds Lake. The house of pink brick and gray siding, featured in the Sunday, December 4, 1960 Grand Rapids Press, was actually 5 stories. Above the first or basement level, was the second, walk-out level, a recreation room for the Thompson’s teenager children. The third or main level featured an unusual fan-shaped living room with brick fireplace set on an angle to reveal the lake view, separated by a wall from the dining room, and also a very modern kitchen with a trapezoid shaped table. The fourth level was for the four bedrooms and two baths. On the fifth level, Dr. Thompson’s cozy study, with fireplace and striking views, was set inside a vertical tower flanked by the two horizontal wings of the main living areas.
As the writer of that article noted, “The proper way to design a home is to study the life of the prospective buyer.” The lowest level of the Thompson home included a dark room, a well-equipped woodworking shop, and an indoor rifle range. Firant, a hunter himself, would have seen no issue in designing an area for practice shooting in that much more innocent time.
Other non-residential commissions included the 1970 Grandville Civic Center Complex with a modern public library described by Firant as a "contemporary, functional design … that is aesthetically pleasing, as well as structurally efficient without unnecessary embellishment. The Good design (beautiful beams and clerestory windows in the reading room) on a budget would have been important to area taxpayers. The complex was redesigned and repurposed when a new public library opened in 1998.
On the list of Firant’s principal works list were also several commercial buildings like the one-story modern physician’s building, now an attorney’s office, at 909 Fulton NE, and the very distinctive Woodland Travel Center, designed in 1966 with a modern glass curtain wall on Plainfield Avenue NE. The brochure for the May 14, 1966 Grand Opening of Woodland Travel Center promoted a new concept in trailer marketing, “a beautiful inside showroom.” Owner Dave Carlson hired Firant to design the building after meeting him during construction of the Rockford Baptist Church. With the business still going strong today, the original 1966 Woodland Travel Center building stands proudly next to its recent modern addition — the glass front gleaming — as stylish today as it was then.
When reflecting upon Firant’s great technical skill and his vision as an architect, it is important to note that not only was he a registered architect in Arizona, Illinois and Michigan, but he was also a registered professional engineer in Illinois. He served on the East Grand Rapids Planning Commission and was a member of the prestigious American Institute of Architects (as one venerable architect told me, a challenging accreditation to earn), the Grand Rapids Architectural League, Grand Rapids Exchange Club, Guild of Religious Architecture, American Society for Church Architecture, and he was a member of the Michigan Association of Professions.
Firant's early death, at the young age of 55, put an abrupt end to a productive career. He was beloved by family, friends and colleagues. The Zion-Benton (Illinois) News carried an article with a personal tribute by Reverend Carl Q. Lee overseer of the Christian Catholic Church.
"Through the years 1959-61 it was my privilege to work with Mr. Edgar R. Firant in the planning and building of the Christian Catholic Church … (Firant) was a professional in every sense of the word as an architect but one who had depth and discernment spiritually as well. The ideas and concepts woven into the structure of our church complex were a clear inspiration to me then and now. His passing brings to me a deep sense of personal loss and I know the world of church architecture has suffered a great loss as well…”
Some of the in-production projects were finished by architect Robert Amor, AIA, using Firant’s original designs and documentation. The Grand Rapids Art Museum featured an exhibit of Firant's architectural drawings, models and photographs from July 15 to August 14, 1973 in Gallery 6 of the Museum. Firant’s wife Gerda Elisabeth Firant documented 22 churches in papers filed with the Baldwin Memorial Archive of American Architects. She wrote this description of her husband’s work for the American Institute of Architects in 1974:
"Edgar Firant's architecture inspires through its original and dynamic design … Each church has a forthright simplicity of design through functional architecture, yet each is original and aesthetically beautiful.”
Perhaps the greatest tribute of all to this architect, whose work embodied structural virtuosity and crisp modern style, is that when viewed through today’s lens, Firant’s buildings do not seem dated but look as modern and structurally beautiful as the day they were built.
EDGAR ROBERT FIRANT, AIA
PRINCIPAL WORKS LOCATED IN MICHIGAN UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED
For a catalog of building images link here(Add link)
Central Methodists Church, Central Avenue Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church additions and the Firant Home, 4130 E. Wilshire Drive, Phoenix, Arizona.
1956Firant Residence, 1621 Breton Road, Grand Rapids
1959Edgar Residence, 1129 Idema Drive, SE, Grand Rapids
1960 Woodland Travel Center, 5190 Plainfield Avenue NE, Grand Rapids
1960-1968Christian Catholic Church, Dowie Memorial Drive, Zion, Illinois. Citation for Church design, National Association of Evangelical Church Group 1961
1961 Dr. Frank Thompson House 4011 Reeds Lake Boulevard, East Grand Rapids
1961 Dr. Alfred Swanson Residence 2945 Bonnell, East Grand Rapids
1961 Additions to Hemlock Elementary School, Hemlock
1961 Smith Residence, 2053 S. Chesaning Drive SE, Grand Rapids
1962-63Arcadia Christian Reformed Church, Four Mile Road and Plainfield NE, Grand Rapids
1963-64Prince of Peace Lutheran Church 3020 Lake Michigan Drive, Grand Rapids
1963-64 Rockford First Baptist Church, Rockford
1964-65Immanuel Lutheran Church, Apple Avenue and Creston, Muskegon
1965-66Marmelund Lutheran Church Additions, 4085 Lutheran Church Road, Kent City
1966 St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, South Lincoln and Division, Rockford
1966 Hoekstra Medical Offices, 909 Fulton NE, Grand Rapids
1967 Chapel Hill Methodist Church, Kent City
1967-68 Shawnee Park Christian Reformed Church, 2255 Tecumseh Dr. SE, Grand
1967-68Reorganized Latter Day Saints Church 4875 Palenque Place NE, Grand Rapids
1967-68 First Methodist Church, Montague
1968 Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, 1200 Alpine Church Road, Comstock Park American Institute of Architects, Grand Valley Chapter Award 1970 and James F. Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation Award in 1968
1968Scott Residence, 3510 Apache Ct. SW, Grandville
1969 First Baptist Church, 38 South State Street, Sparta
1969 Grandville Civic Center including Public Library and Public Safety Buildings
1970 First Congregational Church, 651 Phoenix Street, South Haven
1971-1972Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Roosevelt Park, Muskegon
1971 Grandville United Methodist Church, 3140 Wilson SE, Grandville
1971-1972 City of Wyoming Community and School Swimming Pools, Jackson Park
1972-73Reed City United Methodist Church, 306 South Higbee Street, Reed City
1972-1973 Cadillac United Methodist Church, 121 East Harris Avenue, Cadillac
1973 Riverside Christian Reformed Church Additions, 602 Comstock NE, Grand
Ascension Lutheran Church, 2627 44th Street, Kentwood
Completion Date Unknown:
Robert Hutchinson Residence, Fennville
Krajci Pharmacy, Grant Street & St. Joseph Avenue
Lindenfeld Medical Office Building, Niles
Michigan Fruit Canners Offices and Plant Additions, Fennville