His early career defined Atlanta, but his mid-career and later years shifted to Shanghai and Beijing where he designed and built mini-cities amid China’s ascension on the world’s stage.
But in his last few years, Portman and his companies returned to development in Atlanta, including the soon-to-be Midtown landmark, Coda, a futuristic hub for entrepreneurs at Georgia Tech, his alma mater.
Portman also reclaimed one of his earliest works downtown, acquiring 230 Peachtree, the first office tower in Peachtree Center. The 27-story building reopened in 2016 and included a Hotel Indigo, refreshed office space and an upscale 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.”
In a 1987 story for Esquire, writer Steve Oney describes John Portman’s impact on Atlanta and on the architectural establishment. Portman changed the status quo, and the status quo didn’t like being changed, Oney wrote. Portman, who played a key role in the city’s rise from the 1960s onward, died Friday.
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 not only designed his visions but put himself and his companies on the line financially by building them. He lost much of his fortune in the 1980s and then re-built his career primarily through international projects.
It is unusual for someone to be both architect and developer, and his decision to combine the two careers sparked controversy.
Rival architect I.M. Pei once said Portman “has left architecture for development. You can’t be both. The interests are different.”
Portman, for his part, said that he never saw being an architect and a developer as separate.
“The architects said, ‘Hell, he’s not an architect. He’s a developer.’ The developers said, ‘He’s not a developer, he’s a damn architect.’ We were very sensitive to that,” Portman once told the AJC. “Then we came to the conclusion you are what you are. And it’s been an advantage.”
Portman designed modern buildings around the world, including the Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles. Photo by Richard Sexton.
His designs also proved controversial. Portman pioneered the modern floor-to-ceiling atrium hotel with downtown’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.
“I think you can have both,” he said. “I’ve been given a lot of criticism over the bridges. Venice (Italy) is my favorite city. I thought of the streets as canals. With the bridges, I wanted to tie the land masses together. This goes back to urban congestion. You’ve got all this smoke and fumes and congestion on the street. I was trying to create a people level that slides through all this stuff.”
Atlanta ‘part of my blood’
Portman was born Dec. 4, 1924, during a trip to Walhalla, S.C. His father, John Calvin Portman, was a government employee, and his mother Edna Rochester Portman, was a beautician.
As he liked to say, he was an Atlanta native — or “a native minus three weeks.”
“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.”
ATLANTA, GA — Architect John Portman at the Hyatt Regency in 1980. Portman defined Atlanta’s skyline more than any other architect or builder, and he pioneered interest in modern, soaring atriums with this hotel. (LANNA SWINDLER/AJC staff)
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.
Edwards retired in 1968, and the company, renamed John Portman & 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 that drew not only tourists but locals, who wanted to admire the soaring atrium and dine at the hotel’s restaurant. 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.
John C. Portman Jr. at One Peachtree Center in downtown Atlanta, which came to be known as SunTrust Plaza.
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.
“He stuck with downtown Atlanta for decades when many people had left,” A.J. Robinson said in 2006. Robinson, who worked for Portman for 22 years, went on to become president and CEO of Central Atlanta Progress.
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 donated to help support the infancy of the Atlanta Beltline, and contributed to the city’s purchase of the papers of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which became the centerpiece of the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
“John Portman gave generously to the world of his talents and gifts,” Franklin said. “He gave generously to Atlanta too whether to the Beltline’s early development and the King Papers acquisition or his signature architecture. Just after its opening he sent his entire staff to visit the Center for Civil and Human Rights because he believed it was one of the most important places in the world.”
He helped other American cities as well. Portman is considered by some to be the architect most responsible for restoring once-seedy Times Square and the New York Theater District to greatness with the 1985 opening of his New York Marriott Marquis. The hotel took him 13 years to complete. 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, which includes two hotels and five office buildings.
He also designed General Motors’ famed, seven-tower Renaissance Center in Detroit and the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles.
When the real estate and capital markets nose-dived in the late 1980s, Portman took a hit. Part of the problem was One Peachtree Center (later to be known as SunTrust Plaza), which Portman conceived in 1987 and finally opened in 1992, without enough tenants. Also, a 1989 earthquake in California hurt business at The Portman in San Francisco, a hotel that was supposed to the first of a chain bearing his name. (The Portman is now a J.W. Marriott.)
On top of his domestic troubles, in the summer of 1989, the U.S. State Department asked all U.S. citizens to leave China. Portman was just starting Shanghai Centre. The project stalled.
During a five-year period, Portman sold his interest in most of his buildings or gave them back to his lenders. However, he continued to work both as an architect and developer, overseeing projects all over the world. He eventually bought back 100 percent of AmericasMart.
Portman was also sensitive to criticism that his firm had looked beyond Atlanta in the 1990s and early 2000s, but Portman said much of that had to do with opportunity and growth abroad as many architects and developers sought business in China and India.
“There used to be a television show called ‘Have Gun — Will Travel,’ ” Portman said in 2016. “Well, Have Idea — Will Travel.”
But as the American economy rebounded, Portman returned to Atlanta. His firm is part of a joint venture for a planned InterContinental hotel at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and his empire opened the revitalized 230 Peachtree. Portman also partnered with Georgia Tech to design and build Coda, a nearly $400 million skyscraper going up at Technology Square that will be home to some of the world’s most advanced computing technology, classrooms, research space and innovation labs for major companies.
Coda, to be developed by Portman, will be the second phase of Midtown Atlanta’s popular Technology Square. Georgia Tech will occupy about half of the building, with the rest of the office space geared to major technology companies and startups. Source: John Portman & Associates.
“It’s not going to be your sterile corporate office building,” Portman vice chairman Jack Portman, one of Portman’s sons, said at the December 2016 groundbreaking. “It will be dynamic. … It will be a laboratory of innovation, brimming with brain power, combustible ideas and creative energy.”
Earlier this year, his company landed one of the biggest economic development projects of 2017. In October, Anthem, the parent company of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Georgia, announced it would move into a new Portman tower near Technology Square that could house 3,000 workers.
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 well-received retrospective of his art, furniture and architecture.
“One of the most beautiful places to visit in the city is the sculpture garden at SunTrust Plaza in downtown,” said former mayor Franklin. “It rivals the most exquisite and renowned small gardens anywhere. The garden is a serene place to reflect on life, the world and the universe with Portman sculpture and architectural majesty witnessed in every inch of design.”
His modern designs also have captured the attention of Hollywood. In Los Angeles, the Bonaventure has been a frequent backdrop for film and TV projects, and the Westin Peachtree Plaza was the silent star of the 1981 Burt Reynolds action film “Sharky’s Machine.”
“Mr. Portman set the standard on so many levels in the real estate industry throughout the world,” said Scott Taylor, the president of the Carter real estate services firm, which is a partner with Portman in the airport hotel. “He was a giant and will always be remembered as a visionary developer, an innovative architect, an exquisite artist, a community leader and a true Atlanta gentleman.”
Post-apocalyptic young adult series such as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” have incorporated his downtown Atlanta towers into their visions of the future.
Directors are “projecting a future by imagining how it would look in ruins,” Michael Hays, a professor of architectural theory at Harvard, told The Atlantic in 2015.
“All the flesh has been removed and you just see the architectural bones,” Mays told the magazine. “I’ve always thought Portman’s buildings would make very beautiful ruins, because the essence of them is so powerful and so direct.”
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 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 memorial will be held 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.
Former staff writer Caroline Wilbert contributed to this story
Read and sign the guestbook for famed Atlanta architect and developer John C. Portman Jr.
The life of John C. Portman Jr.
1924: Born in Walhalla, S.C. on Dec. 4 to John Calvin and Edna Rochester — the only son of six children.
1944: Serves as midshipman at U.S. Naval Academy.
1944: Marries Joan “Jan” Newton.
1950: Receives Bachelor of Architecture degree from Georgia Institute of Technology.
1953: Borrows $300 and opens his own development and architecture firm.
1956: Opens Edwards & Portman with H. Griffith Edwards, his former Georgia Tech professor.
1961: Opens the Atlanta Merchandise Mart for wholesale showrooms and the first Peachtree Center building.
1965: Opens 230 Peachtree, the first Peachtree Center office tower.
1967: Opens the Regency Hyatt House, one of the first hotels with a soaring atrium. Now known as the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, its “blue bubble” top becomes an instant Atlanta landmark.
1968: Edwards retires and the firm name is changed to John Portman & Associates.
1970: Opens the Atlanta Gas Light Tower.
1973: Opens Peachtree Center South Tower.
1975: Designs and develops first overseas project, the Brussels International Trade Mart.
1976: Opens the Westin Peachtree Plaza, then the tallest hotel in North America.
1976: Opens Peachtree Center Harris Tower.
1979: Opens Atlanta Apparel Mart, a wholesale apparel trade center.
1984: Ivy Street is renamed Peachtree Center Boulevard after Portman’s company, Peachtree Center Management Co., requests the change with the idea that it would increase their chances of leasing office space in buildings along the street.
1985: Opens Peachtree Center Marquis One Tower.
1985: Opens downtown’s Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atlanta’s largest convention hotel. Also opens one in New York City.
1988: Opens Peachtree Center Marquis Two Tower.
1989: Opens Inforum, a technology and computer mart.
1990: Short of cash and $2 billion in debt, Portman turns over assets to his lenders and financial partners. Assets include six Peachtree Center office towers and Inforum.
1990: Awarded a Horatio Alger Award.
1991: Opens Atlanta Gift Mart, a center for the wholesale gift business.
1992: Opens One Peachtree Center (a tower later known as SunTrust Plaza).
1995: Turns over majority ownership of his downtown trade mart complex to creditors as part of the second major restructuring of his massive debts.
1998: Portman’s first new venture involves working with Swedish contracting giant, Skanska International Building, to develop a $70 million hotel in Warsaw, Poland.
1999: AMC Inc., the firm created by Portman’s debt restructuring, pays off $8 million in debt through the sale of its stake in a San Francisco mixed-use office complex.
2003: Portman’s 50 year old son, Jae Philip, is found dead near his Buckhead home.
2006: Portman Holdings signs an agreement with South Korean officials to build a 1,500-acre, $11 billion residential, office and hotel complex near Seoul. The project’s centerpiece, Incheon Tower, is a 151-story, 2,000-foot skyscraper to rival the world’s tallest structures. After being stalled by the recession, plans for Incheon Tower were scrapped.
2006: Awarded design and co-development of a Hilton Hotels Corp. complex in San Diego.
2007: The Inforum is renamed the American Cancer Society after the nonprofit relocates to the building.
2011: The city renames Harris Street John Portman Blvd.
2013: Wins the Four Pillar Award from the Council for Quality Growth
2015-2016: Portman’s companies win the job to design a luxury InterContinental hotel at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, reopens 230 Peachtree as a hotel and office space and breaks ground on Coda at Technology Square.
2017: Portman’s companies announce a new Midtown office tower near Technology Square with health insurance giant Anthem as anchor tenant.
Click here to see a photo gallery of Portman's influence on global skylines.