John Portman, Renowned Atlanta Architect, Dies at 93
ATLANTA — John Portman, the architect and developer who revolutionized hotel design and shaped the skylines of Atlanta and cities abroad, died Friday, Dec. 29 at the age of 93.
Portman was the founder and chairman of Atlanta-based real estate development firm Portman Holdings LLC, and architectural and engineering firm John Portman & Associates. Portman pioneered the role of architect as developer by developing, owning and designing major projects around the world, making him a rarity among contemporaries.
Born in Walhalla, S.C., in 1924, Portman spent the majority of his life in metro Atlanta — a city he came to transform. Portman gave the city the sprawling 14-block Peachtree Center, demonstrating his commitment to the downtown business district.
Peachtree Center began in 1961 with the opening of the Atlanta Merchandise Mart, and would come to include eight office towers, three hotels and retail shops. The Portman-owned-and-operated Mart has since grown to become AmericasMart, the world’s largest contiguous wholesale marketplace, according to various media reports.
In addition, Portman designed and developed four downtown Atlanta hotels: the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, The Westin Peachtree Plaza, the Atlanta Marriott Marquis and the Hotel Indigo Atlanta Downtown.
With the opening of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta in 1967 — the centerpiece of Peachtree Center — Portman made architectural history and won international acclaim. The hotel was constructed around a 22-story, sky-lit atrium with glass-cabbed elevators and a revolving rooftop restaurant, offering guests the antithesis to the confining environment of once-typical urban hotels.
The modern floor-to-ceiling atrium hotel became his signature. While his soaring designs often evoked fascination from the public, critics remarked his buildings were too inward facing — forbidding to outsiders.
From Embarcadero Center in San Francisco to the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square, Portman played a hand in restoring the skylines of major cities across the country. He left his mark on the Midwest with the design of the first phase of Renaissance Center in Detroit, and on the West Coast with the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. With the exception of Renaissance Center, Portman played the dual role of architect and developer.
A pioneer abroad
Portman’s international work began with the design and development of the Brussels International Trade Mart in 1975, then shifted east. The Regent Singapore was Portman’s first international hotel, followed by Singapore’s Marina Square, a mixed-use concept with three hotels, a retail mall and an office building. Portman was one of the first American architects to become actively involved in China with the design of Shanghai Centre, a mixed-use concept that opened in 1980.
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 Atlanta International Airport, and in 2016, it reopened the revitalized 230 Peachtree, which Portman Holdings originally developed in 1965.
In addition, Portman Holdings recently partnered with the Georgia Institute of Technology to design and build Coda, a nearly $400 million skyscraper under construction at Technology Square in Midtown Atlanta. Upon completion, Coda will feature advanced research facilities, a high-speed data center, dining options, outdoor gathering spaces and collaborative office space.
In October, Portman Holdings landed a large deal when it entered into a build-to-suit agreement with Anthem, the parent company of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Georgia. The health insurance company will anchor a 21-story tower — designed and developed by Portman’s empire — rising adjacent to the 645,000-square-foot Coda building.
Portman 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. His alma mater presented him with their highest honor, the Exceptional Achievement Award, in 1986; awarded him with an honorary doctorate degree 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.
Additionally, Portman received the AIA Medal from the National American Institute of Architects for innovations in hotel design in 1978, and the Silver Medal Award from the Atlanta Chapter of AIA for innovative design in 1981. He was a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a member of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. In 2013, Portman was honored with the Four Pillar Award from Atlanta’s Council for Quality Growth, in a tribute held in his own Hyatt Regency Atlanta.
Portman is survived by his wife, Joan “Jan” Newton Portman; 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 and five great-grandchildren.
A public service is planned for 12:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 5 in the atrium of AmericasMart Building 3 in downtown Atlanta. 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.