Atlanta architect John Portman remembered for imprint on world

6:35 p.m Friday, Jan. 5, 2018 Local
J. Scott Trubey
Jarel Portman, a son of legendary Atlanta architect and developer John C. Portman Jr., standing at right, gives a eulogy during a memorial service for his father at AmericasMart in downtown Atlanta on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018. The elder Portman died Dec. 29, 2017, at age 93. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/STRUBEY@AJC.com.

Family and friends of famed Atlanta architect and developer John C. Portman Jr. on Friday remembered him for his determination and vision, which changed not only the face of his beloved hometown but skylines across the globe.

At a memorial in downtown Atlanta, loved ones remembered Portman rising from a childhood of poverty to become one of Atlanta most influential businessmen. He built an empire that included an international architectural firm, development company, downtown Atlanta’s AmericasMart and the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center or ADAC.

Portman died Dec. 29 at age 93.

His Atlanta projects included Peachtree Center, the Marriott Marquis, SunTrust Plaza and the upcoming Coda tower at Georgia Tech, his alma mater.

Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador, said Portman never could have accomplished all he did without Jan, his wife of 73 years.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
John C. Portman Jr. in 2016 at the reopening of 230 Peachtree as a hotel, restaurant and office building. File photo

“For 73 years, for her to put up with him — and it was not easy — because he is perpetually driven,” Young said. “But she is as calm and serene and as angelic as she was 73 years ago.”

Son Jeff Portman, who runs the sprawling AmericasMart, the merchandise mart and trade show company, described his father as a “founder, chairman, father, grandfather, brother, mentor and a friend.”

“No matter how we knew John Calvin Portman Jr., we were all heirs to what he built,” Jeff Portman said.

Portman’s post-modernist style was influential in the architectural world. But his designs also proved controversial at times, with some critics saying his fortress-like structures shielded people from life on the street.

His role as both architect and developer was rare in the world of commercial real estate.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, center, gives a eulogy during a memorial service for famed Atlanta architect and developer John C. Portman Jr. at AmericasMart in downtown Atlanta on Friday, Jan. 5, 2018. Portman died Dec. 29, 2017, at age 93. J. SCOTT TRUBEY/STRUBEY@AJC.com.

John C. “Jack” Portman III, Portman’s second son and vice chairman of Portman Holdings, said his father was an architect above all else.

Portman’s influences included architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, but Portman developed his own canon.

“For those who are not familiar with the world of architecture, it’s hard to convey the sheer talent, daring and ultimately the importance of John’s contribution to the field,” said Mohsen Mostafavi, the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where there is a visiting professorship in Portman’s name.

Click here to see a photo gallery of Portman’s influence on global skylines. 

“He’s one of the true masters of 20th century architecture,” Mostafavi said, adding that Portman designed structures by hand that “were really not conceivable before the use of computers became prevalent in contemporary practice.”

Portman’s many architectural trademarks included hotels with soaring atriums and revolving rooftop restaurants. Portman also was an artist and furniture designer.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA, GA — Architect John Portman at the Hyatt Regency in 1980. Portman defined Atlanta’s skyline more than any other architect or builder, and his pioneered interest in modern, soaring atriums with this hotel. (LANNA SWINDLER/AJC staff)

Grandson John C. Portman IV said he once had the temerity to ask his grandfather which project was his favorite. The younger Portman said his grandfather, after an uncomfortable pause, “looked right through me and said, ‘The next one.’”

Portman also was a founding member of the Atlanta Action Forum, a coalition of black and white business leaders who worked to make Atlanta more racially and economically inclusive. In the 1960s, the first two restaurants inside AmericasMart opened as some of downtown’s first integrated eateries, and Portman’s Hyatt Regency opened as an integrated convention hotel.

The memorial for Portman, fittingly, was held in one of his trademark atriums. Mourners gathered in AmericasMart Building 3 as his familiar glass elevators ferried exhibitors and guests between floors.

Portman infused these atriums, which act almost like soaring theaters to bring light and life to his towers, in projects ranging from the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta to the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square.