Deaths of Note

Published on January 5th, 2018 |


Famed Atlanta architect/developer/artist John Portman dead at age 93

By John Schaffner

The last major contribution internationally acclaimed architect and developer John C. Portman Jr., made to the Atlanta landscape before his death Dec. 30 was not a skyline altering building, but rather one of his dramatic sculptures that anchors the apex of Buckhead’s Loudermilk Park.

Architect/developer/sculptor John Portman (right) is shown at the unveiling of his sculpture at Buckhead’s Loudermilk Park with his friend Charlie Loudermilk (left) and Buckhead CID Executive Director Jim Durrett.

Portman, whose post-modernist, and sometimes controversial, style won him acclaim while altering the skylines of Atlanta and cities around the world, was a lifelong close friend of the triangular heart of the park’s namesake, Mr. Buckhead Charlie Loudermilk.

Just days before Portman’s death, BuckheadView ran into Charlie Loudermilk while dining at Blue Ridge Grille on Dec. 23. Loudermilk said the sculpture by his friend Portman is a great focal point that draws people into the renewed park that represents the gateway,  at the intersection of Peachtree and Roswell roads, to both the historic old as well as the new Buckhead.

Portman died days later at the age of 93, but his legacy will live on. No single architect shaped Atlanta’s skyline like Portman, who gave the city the Hyatt Regency, Peachtree Center, AmericasMart and the Westin Peachtree Plaza hotel.

He also left his stamp from San Francisco to Shanghai, and helped revitalize TimesSquare with his famed New York Marriott Marquis.

Portman also supported civic and philanthropic causes, and was a founding member of Atlanta’s Action Forum, a coalition of black and white business leaders who worked to make Atlanta more racially and economically inclusive and preserve Atlanta’s reputation as the “city too busy to hate.”

“There is no one who has done more for Atlanta,” former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young once said of Portman.

Portman’s early career focused on defining downtown Atlanta, shifting in his mid-career and later years to Shanghai and Beijing where he designed and built mini-cities.  But in his last few

John Portman (left) is shown with his friend and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.

years, Portman and his companies returned to development in Atlanta, including Coda the soon-to-be Midtown landmark hub for entrepreneurs at his alma mater Georgia Tech.

Portman also reclaimed one of his earliest works downtown, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, acquiring the first office tower in Peachtree Center. The 27-story building reopened in 2016 and included a Hotel Indigo, redone office space and a restaurant.

“It was real estate development, but it was bigger than that,” an emotional Portman said of his start with Peachtree Center at the reopening of 230 Peachtree. “Yes, I’m in love with Atlanta,” the AJC reported.

In a statement on Saturday, the Portman companies — architecture firm John Portman & Associates, real estate development firm Portman Holdings, AmericasMart and ADAC (Atlanta Decorative Arts Center) — said they will continue to operate under their current leadership.

Portman lost much of his fortune in the 1980s and then re-built his career primarily through international projects. His decision to be both architect and developer sparked controversy. Portman said that he never saw being an architect and a developer as separate.

Architect/developer John Portman is shown in the atrium lobby of the downtown Atlanta Hyatt Regency Hotel.

His designs also proved controversial. Portman pioneered the modern floor-to-ceiling atrium hotel with downtown Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency, and many of his towers are known for their soaring atriums, glass elevators, revolving rooftop restaurants and pedestrian bridges connecting buildings above street level.

He often said he liked to offer people an escape from cities. Critics, however, say his buildings are fortress-like and harm cities because they discourage pedestrian traffic. In 2006, Portman told the AJC that he believed street life and pedestrian bridges can co-exist.

Portman was born Dec. 4, 1924, during a trip to Walhalla, South Carolina. His father, John Calvin Portman, was a government employee, and his mother Edna Rochester Portman, was a beautician.

“My mother was visiting in Walhalla, South Carolina, and I decided to come early,” Portman told the AJC in 2016. “We came back into Brookwood Station and I was three weeks old, and so I’m a native of the city. I’m a product of the city school system. … I used to sell magazines up and down Peachtree when I was a kid. I’ve walked the sidewalks. It’s part of my blood.”

In 1944, he married Joan “Jan” Newton, who survives him.

He served as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy during World War II and earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Georgia Tech in 1950. A few years later, he founded Edwards & Portman with H. Griffith Edwards, his former professor at Tech. In 1961 they opened the Atlanta Merchandise Mart, the first of the Peachtree Center buildings.

Photo shows some of the impact of Portman’s architecture and development on the Atlanta skyline.

Edwards retired in 1968, and the company, renamed John Port-man & Associates, would over decades develop a number of downtown landmarks.

His Hyatt Regency Atlanta, completed in 1967, with its rotating rooftop restaurant and atrium was a radical idea. The atrium became a common feature in big convention hotels. The Hyatt is the centerpiece of Peachtree Center, a complex that would eventually include eight office towers, three major hotels, retail shops and a huge wholesale trade mart.

Portman also designed and developed the Atlanta Gas Light Tower, the Atlanta Marriott Marquis and the Inforum building — now known as the American Cancer Society Center.

Portman was awarded numerous architectural prizes in his career, as well as the Horatio Alger Award in 1990, an honor that noted Portman’s success from humble beginnings.

Some leaders credit Portman with saving downtown during a time when people were fleeing to the suburbs. Portman said in 2016 he saw that return to cities — particularly in Atlanta — as an unshakable trend driven by demographics.

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin called Portman “a towering figure in his charity, vision and architecture.” He supported the infancy of the Atlanta BeltLine, and contributed to the city’s purchase of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. papers, the centerpiece of the Center for Civil and Human Rights.

Portman helped rejuvenate the once-seedy Times Square and the New York Theater District with the 1985 opening of his New York Marriott Marquis. The hotel took him 13 years to complete.

Photo shows Portman’s international influence with his development of this Shanghai Center in China.

Forbes called the Marriott “a vital beachhead in reclaiming tawdry Times Square.”

In San Francisco, Portman’s 1973 Hyatt Regency San Francisco Hotel sparked a rebirth of the harbor area. The hotel is part of Portman’s Embarcadero Center, his West Coast counterpart to Atlanta’s Peachtree Center. He also designed General Motors’ famed, seven-tower Renaissance Center in Detroit and the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles.

Portman, a painter, sculptor and philosopher as well as an architect and businessman, said he found beauty everywhere. In 2009-10, the High Museum of Art held a retrospective of his art, furniture and architecture.

Portman is survived by his wife Jan; 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 Port-man and his wife Traylor; his siblings Glenda Portman Dodrill, Anne Portman Davis, Joy Port-man Roberts and her husband Phil; nineteen grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, many nieces, nephews, cousins, and other relatives and loved ones.

A public memorial is being held today (Jan. 5) in the atrium at AmericasMart. In lieu of flowers, the Portman family requests contributions be made to the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, Office of Gift Records, Emory University, 1762 Clifton Rd. NE, Suite 1400, Atlanta, GA 30322. Condolences may be sent in care of Jana Portman Simmons, Portman Holdings, 303 Peachtree Center Avenue, NE, Suite 575, Atlanta, GA 30303.


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