Atlanta Architect John C. Portman Jr. Passes at 93
Atlanta, Ga. -- John C. Portman, Jr. died December 29, 2017 at the age of 93. As an architect, real estate developer, entrepreneur, artist and altruist, Portman had a dramatic impact on Atlanta's success and growth as a major international city and similar impact on other major cities throughout the world. He is internationally recognized for significant urban mixed-use complexes wherein his understanding of people and their response to space translates into enhanced environments and award-winning architecture.
For Portman, design decisions were always rooted in the interpretation of basic human needs. Portman believed that architecture was created to serve life and people, and Portman recognized that all people, wherever they live, are more alike than different. From Embarcadero Center in San Francisco and Times Square in New York, Marina Square in Singapore and Shanghai Centre in China, he took people away from the congestion of urban life by creating spaces that are open and uplifting to the human spirit.
Portman pioneered the role of architect/developer, weathering tremendous criticism from members of the architectural profession who viewed this as a conflict of interest. The first project for which he served in this dual role was in the design and development of the initial Atlanta Merchandise Mart, now AmericasMart Atlanta. When Portman founded the Atlanta Merchandise Mart in an old converted office building in 1957, Atlanta was experiencing “white flight,” as were many cities throughout the South. As the city core was abandoned in favor of the suburbs, vacant buildings became eyesores or were leveled for parking lots, and no new construction was happening downtown.
Portman was raised in Atlanta. His family lived adjacent to the downtown area; his dad worked downtown and, as a teenager, so did Portman. He always had a great love of the area and for all its people. When success dictated building a new, larger building for the Atlanta Merchandise Mart, he made the decision to build it downtown to encourage further development, reenergize the city, and save the area for future generations, in spite of many obstacles and huge financial risks.
Before the Mart’s new million-square-foot building opened in 1962, Portman made the decision that its two restaurants would be Atlanta’s first-integrated eateries open to the public. He made no big to-do about this and the restaurants quietly flourished.
Continuing his vision of revitalizing downtown Atlanta, Portman began the development of a mixed-use complex, Peachtree Center, with office towers, retail, and restaurants. In 1965, he began the design and development of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta hotel as the complex’s third building. From the beginning, he was determined to make it the first integrated hotel in Atlanta. Because of its unique design featuring the first modern hotel atrium, the Hyatt became the most notable hotel in the world.
In 1975, Portman designed and developed the Westin Peachtree Plaza, which opened as the tallest hotel in North America. The hotel included a kosher kitchen, making it the first public facility in the city that could properly serve kosher meals. Competitive facilities followed and, today, kosher facilities are now available in most Atlanta area event venues.
Portman continued to develop Peachtree Center over 55 years and it now occupies 14 city blocks and includes approximately 21 buildings that contain 20 million square feet. The success of Peachtree Center achieved Portman’s vision of attracting further development. Downtown Atlanta has flourished, serving as a catalyst for the extraordinary success and growth of the entire region.
Portman was also a founding member of Atlanta’s Action Forum, which was formed by a group of like-minded prominent business leaders who were dedicated to the success of Atlanta and the welfare of all its citizens. They used their resources and influence to ensure that Atlanta remained “a city too busy to hate” by dealing with racial issues that divided other American cities. Their strong social views resulted in meaningful action in the local community.
Given his work and contributions to Atlanta – which spanned civic, business and philanthropic investments – former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young said of Portman, “there is no one who has done more for Atlanta.”
Beyond Atlanta, Portman created urban mixed-use complexes focused on connecting people to their surrounding environments. In Detroit, Henry Ford sought Portman’s help to stop urban flight from the city with the design of Renaissance Center. In Los Angeles, The Bonaventure Hotel initiated the renewal efforts in the city’s Bunker Hill section.
Sharing art with the public was an important life mission for Portman. His willingness to invest in his own projects and his personal commitment to art in architecture was evident from the start. When he opened his practice in 1953, his first project was the renovation of the Fraternal Order of Eagles Building in downtown Atlanta upon which he wanted to affix a contemporary metal sculpture of an eagle. The client liked the idea, but was unwilling to finance the art. Although he was a struggling young architect, Portman used his own funds to commission the sculpture, and this was the beginning of his lifelong practice of incorporating art as integral elements within his designs. People worldwide continue to enjoy his contributions to the arts as he persevered in placing his sculptures and paintings, as well as those by internationally acclaimed artists, in projects around the world.
Portman leaves behind a legacy hallmarked by honors and awards. His numerous architectural awards include the AIA Medal from the National American Institute of Architects for innovations in hotel design and the Silver Medal Award from the Atlanta Chapter of AIA for innovative design. He was a Fellow of the AIA and a member of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. He was recognized for “extraordinary contributions to the advancement of tall buildings and the urban environment” with a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.
Throughout his life, one question guided every decision – how will this serve people and make a lasting contribution? Portman famously said, “It is through accomplishment that man makes his contribution and contribution is life's greatest reward.” Portman’s legacy businesses carry on. All of the companies –architecture firm John Portman & Associates, real estate development firm Portman Holdings, AmericasMart and ADAC (Atlanta Decorative Arts Center) – will continue under their current leadership.
When asked, Portman considered his family to be his greatest success. He was a devoted husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He is survived by his wife of 73 years, Joan Newton (Jan) Portman; his children Michael Wayne (Jody) Portman, John Calvin (Jack) Portman, III, Jeffrey Lin Portman and his wife Lisa, Jana Lee Portman Simmons and her husband Jed, Jarel Penn Portman and his wife Traylor, his siblings Glenda Portman Dodrill, Anne Portman Davis, Joy Portman Roberts and her husband Phil; eighteen grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, many nieces, nephews, cousins, and other relatives and loved ones.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Condolences may be sent in care of Jana Portman Simmons, Portman Holdings, 303 Peachtree Center Avenue, NE, Suite 575, Atlanta, GA 30303.
To learn more, visit www.jcp-legacy.com.