Home Furnishing Industry Loses Legendary John Portman, Jr.
Atlanta lost one of her greatest champions with the passing of John C. Portman, Jr. on Friday, December 29, 2017 at the age of 93. The leadership and vision of Mr. Portman were instrumental in moving Atlanta from a gracious Southern city into a vibrant world capital. As an architect, entrepreneur, artist and altruist, John Portman had a dramatic impact on Atlanta’s success and growth as a major international city, and he was instrumental in having similar impact on other cities throughout the world.
John Portman was born in his mother’s home town of Walhalla, South Carolina on December 4th, 1924 to John and Edna Portman. He was their only son among six children. He began selling magazines on the street corner and then created his own “franchise plan” for selling gum in front of Atlanta’s movie theaters. As a youngster and before movie theaters had concession stands, he discovered he could invest in a case of gum and then sell the individual pieces at a profit. He recruited his school mates to stand in front of the theaters with the gum while he rode his bike back and forth between them, collecting money, making change and replenishing their supplies. The hill he rode his bike up and down on Peachtree Street between theaters is now crossed by John Portman Boulevard.
While working as a movie usher at one of those theaters, he first met Jan, the beautiful young lady who would become his wife. In another job held during high school, he parked cars in a downtown parking deck, the Belle Isle Parking Garage. The owner, Mr. Henderson, started him out at 25¢ an hour. During World War II, the government converted the Belle Isle Parking Garage into an office building that housed government agencies. In the mid-1950’s, Portman was a young architect looking for design commissions when he heard that the government was vacating the office building. Using the creativity for which he became renowned, he developed a plan to convert the building into a wholesale furniture mart and he went to meet with Mr. Henderson, his old boss, who still owned the building, to convince him a furniture mart would a great use for the building. Of course, Portman also proposed that he should be hired as the architect to design the conversion of the building. Mr. Henderson balked, explaining that he did not know anything about running that sort of business. But, he suggested that if Portman really believed in the concept that he had just pitched, then he should create a company to run the furniture mart business, and Mr. Henderson would rent him the building for it. Portman took him up on his offer, and this was the birth of what is now AmericasMart with over eight million square feet of space.
Mr. Portman attended Forest Elementary School, O’Keefe Middle School and Tech High all within very close distance to his family residence on Boulevard in Atlanta. He first pursued his interest in architecture as a student during his high school years at Tech High. At the age of 15, he was bored with mechanical drawing, which was a required course, so he requested that his teacher and administrators allow him to substitute courses in architectural drafting for mechanical drawing. Permission was granted, and even though he was the only architectural drawing student, he was encouraged and supported by his mechanical drawing teacher and this began his lifelong love affair with architecture.
Mr. Portman graduated from Tech High in 1944, and he was immediately drafted into the Navy. While on active duty as an aircraft weapons armorer, a friend convinced him to compete for one of the precious few fleet appointments to the Naval Academy that were available to the enlisted men then serving on active duty. After a series of highly competitive written and oral exams and evaluations, he was selected as one of the few fleet appointees. He attended a preparatory school, then reported to Annapolis in the summer of 1945 and was preparing to enter his first year as a cadet when the Japanese surrendered. The Navy offered the new cadets the choice of either staying at the Academy and earning a commission, or receiving a discharge and returning home. Portman chose the discharge and returned to Atlanta to enter Georgia Tech to study architecture. By then, he was married and a father, and he worked his way through Georgia Tech with the architectural firms of Ketchum, Gina and Sharp and H.M. Heatley Associates designing retail space for major department stores.
Mr. Portman received his Bachelor of Science in Architecture degree from Georgia Tech in 1950. After a three-year apprenticeship with one of the premier Atlanta architectural firms, Stevens & Wilkinson, Portman opened his own firm in 1953. As he told the story, he chose his first employee because the architect was not only capable, but he also owned a typewriter and Portman was hopeful that they would one day need to type up an invoice. In 1956, Portman partnered with one of his former professors from Georgia Tech, H. Griffith Edwards to form the firm of Edwards & Portman Architects. When Mr. Edwards retired in 1968, the firm was renamed John Portman & Associates.
Mr. Portman’s willingness to invest in his own projects and his personal commitment to art in architecture was evident from the start. When he opened his own office in 1953, his first commission was the renovation of the Fraternal Order of Eagles Building in downtown Atlanta on which he wanted to affix a contemporary metal sculpture of an eagle. The client liked the idea, but was unwilling to finance the art. Mr. Portman was so passionate about the idea, that he used his own funds for the purchase of the sculpture, and this was the beginning of his lifelong practice of incorporating art as integral elements within his designs.
At the commencement of his career, he pioneered the role of architect as developer in order to give himself more freedom in the implementation of his design concepts and to gain greater control of his projects’ destinies. His keen business sense and entrepreneurial spirit combined with his incredible design abilities and determined self-confidence enabled him to develop many profitable projects.
As he pioneered the role of architect as developer, he drew on a philosophy of self-reliance which was strongly influenced by the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His architecture was impacted by the teachings of Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Portman met when Wright was a guest lecturer at Georgia Tech a few years after Portman graduated. Like Wright, Portman focused on the systems by which buildings were organized and the concept of organic unity as a design ideal. His two private residences, Entelechy I in Atlanta and Entelechy II on Sea Island, best exemplify Portman’s design philosophy.
Portman’s impact was perhaps greatest on his hometown of Atlanta, where today the 14-block Peachtree Center complex which he designed and developed without the use of any public funds attests to his commitment to the downtown business district and includes many of his landmark projects. Peachtree Center began in 1961 with the opening of the Atlanta Merchandise Mart. The Mart has since grown to become AmericasMart, the world’s largest single wholesale marketplace in a fully integrated complex connected by aerial pedestrian bridges. By stimulating trade and tourism, Portman was the catalyst that established Atlanta as one of the nation’s premiere convention cities. His three major downtown hotels, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, The Westin Peachtree Plaza, and the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, anchor the city’s convention district. From the opening of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta in 1967, with its 22-story atrium, Portman made architectural history and won international acclaim.
By carefully rethinking the typical urban hotel, Portman readdressed the guest experience to create the antithesis of the confining environment of traditional city hotels. The Hyatt Regency Atlanta was constructed around a twenty-two story, sky-lit atrium with glass cabbed elevators providing an experiential journey through the atrium to a revolving roof-top restaurant.
Portman became internationally recognized for urban mixed-use complexes wherein his understanding of people and their response to space translated into enhanced environments and award-winning architecture. From Embarcadero Center in San Francisco and Times Square in New York, to Marina Square in Singapore and Shanghai Centre in China, he has taken people away from the congestion of urban life to create spaces that are open and uplifting to the human spirit. 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. With the exception of Renaissance Center, Portman performed the dual role of architect and developer.
Portman’s international work began with the design and development of the Brussels Trade Mart in 1975, then shifted to the Far East. The Regent Singapore was Portman’s first international hotel, followed by Marina Square, also in Singapore, a major complex that includes three hotels, a retail mall and an office building. Portman entered China in 1980 as one of the first American architects or developers to become actively involved when China opened its doors to the West. Portman’s pioneer project, Shanghai Centre, a large, mixed-use complex, has been described by China Daily as “one of the five architectural stars in mainland China.”
Paul Goldberger, architectural critic of The New York Times, wrote “He (Portman) is the only architect of his era to create not only a series of significant buildings, but a new urban type.” Paul Gapp of The Chicago Tribune wrote at the time, “The most influential living American architect is John Calvin Portman, Jr. Countless other architects have copied him but the music just isn’t the same.”
As a founding member of Atlanta’s Action Forum, Portman, along with other like-minded business leaders, black and white, quietly used their wits and influence to ensure that Atlanta remained “a city too busy to hate” by successfully dealing with issues that divided other cities. His strong social views resulted in meaningful action in the local community conducted without fanfare but proved to be impactful. The two restaurants within the Atlanta Merchandise Mart when it opened in 1961 were Atlanta’s first integrated restaurants. Likewise, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta was fully integrated from its opening in 1967. Portman included a kosher kitchen when he developed the Westin Peachtree Plaza when it opened in 1976, making it the first public venue in the City that could properly serve kosher meals.
Portman’s role in the international community in Atlanta was also very strong. He was a founding member of the World Trade Center in Atlanta. He was knighted by the King of Belgium and the Queen of Denmark, and served as the Honorary Consul of Denmark for 30 years.
He supported the arts, he collected art, and he, himself, was a prolific painter and sculptor. The people of Atlanta continue to enjoy his contributions to the arts, from the magnificent bronze lions by Olivier Strebelle that he commissioned for Peachtree Center Avenue, to Paul Manship’s towering Ballet Olympia on Peachtree Street. Portman’s own work plays a prominent role in the lobby and plaza surrounding SunTrust Plaza and many other projects around the world.
Portman began creating paintings and sculptures in the early 1980’s, after years of integrating art into the architectural environment, including designing lighting fixtures, hardware and furniture. To quote Olivier Strebelle, University of Georgia Lamar Dodd Professor of Art and recognized sculptor, “No architect is more aware of the need of this mystery called art in our everyday life.”
In 1979, Portman was elected Associate National Academician and to full Membership in 1994, at the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts in New York. In 1996, the Angel Orensanz Foundation elected him Member of the Senate of the Accademia Internazionale d’Arte Moderna. In 1997, the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts exhibited four projects: the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, SunTrust Plaza in Atlanta, the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco, and Entelechy II in Sea Island, Georgia. In 1999, an exhibit curated by Barkin-Leeds, Ltd. “John Portman, A Retrospective Exhibition” displayed his work in the gallery at SunTrust Plaza in Atlanta. He served as a board member of the Atlanta College of Art, and is Trustee Emeritus of the Atlanta Arts Alliance. The High Museum of Atlanta hosted an exhibition of Portman’s architecture, paintings and sculpture entitled John Portman: Art & Architecture which opened October 17, 2009 and ran through April 17, 2010. The curated exhibition, which included over fifty works of art created by Portman, most of which had never been exhibited in public, then went on tour and was exhibited at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center during the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, then featured at the Capital Museum in Beijing in 2011.
Georgia Tech, his alma mater, presented him their highest honor, the Exceptional Achievement Award in 1986; awarded him with an honorary PhD in 2012; and, in 2014, named the endowment of the chair for the Dean of the College of Architecture “The John Portman Dean’s Chair” in his honor. The Graduate School of Design at Harvard University also has a chair named in his honor. The John Portman Visiting Chair in Architecture creates a special opportunity for the GSD to bring internationally recognized designers to their campus in a sustained role. Portman was also honored with honorary PhD’s by Georgia State University, Atlanta College of Arts, Shenyang Architecture and Civil Engineering Institute, and Emory University.
Portman’s numerous architectural awards included the AIA Medal from the National American Institute of Architects in 1978 for innovations in hotel design, and the Silver Medal Award in 1981 from the Atlanta Chapter of AIA for innovative design. He was a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects 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.
In 1990, he received the Horatio Alger Award from the Horatio Alger Association in recognition of his rise from humble beginnings. In a “full-circle moment,” the 2013 Four Pillar Award from Atlanta’s Council for Quality Growth saw him honored in a tribute held in his own Hyatt Regency Atlanta on that hill on Peachtree Street where his entrepreneurial spirit first ignited so many years before.
Seven major books have been written about John Portman’s work: The Architect as Developer, co-authored by Portman with Jonathan Barnett and published by McGraw Hill in 1976; John Portman, published by l’Arcaedizioni in 1990; John Portman – An Island on an Island, published by l’Arcaedizioni in 1997; The Master Architect Series VI, John Portman & Associates published by Images Publishing in 2002; John Portman: Art and Architecture, published by the University of Georgia Press in 2009; FORM, published by Images Publishing in 2010; and Portman’s America & Other Speculations, edited by Moshen Mostafavi, published by Lars Muller in 2017. Additionally, a documentary film, John Portman, A Life of Building, was produced in 2011 by director Ben Loeterman.
John Portman’s legacy businesses carry on. Architectural firm John Portman & Associates, real estate development firm Portman Holdings, AmericasMart and ADAC (Atlanta Decorative Arts Center) each continue under their current leadership as the companies prepared for this transition years ago.
John C. Portman, Jr. was preceded in death by his parents John C. Portman, Sr. and Edna Rochester Portman; his siblings Mabel Portman Creel and Phyllis Portman Tippet ; and his son Jae Phillip Portman and Jae’s wife Barbara Portman.
John C. Portman, Jr. is survived by his beloved 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, and Jarel Penn Portman and his wife Traylor; his siblings Glenda Portman Dodrill, Anne Portman Davis, Joy Portman Roberts and her husband Phil; nineteen grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, many nieces, nephews, cousins, and other relatives and loved ones.
A public service is planned for Friday, January 5, 2018 at 12:30 pm in the atrium of AmericasMart Building 3 at the corner of John Portman Boulevard (Historic Harris Street) and Ted Turner Drive (Historic Spring Street). Portman generously, and often anonymously, supported many important causes throughout his life. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that 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.