50 Most Influential Atlantans: John Portman



John Portman
John Portman

Photograph courtesy of the Atlanta History Center

With futuristic vision and unfettered ambition, Portman shaped the Downtown skyline. The Georgia Tech architecture grad dreamed up the second-tallest hotel in the western hemisphere, the cylindrical Westin Peachtree Plaza. He reinvented what a hotel could look like; instead of being situated down dark hallways, rooms in his Hyatt Regency and Marriott Marquis opened up to grand atria and glass elevators—and his revolving, flying-saucer-esque restaurant at the former, Polaris, has become a beloved quirk among the skyscrapers of Peachtree Street. At a time of mass exodus from Downtown, Portman stayed, dedicated to creating buildings that would keep the district alive with businesspeople and conventioneers—including the interconnected Peachtree Center towers (where he still keeps an office), the Merchandise Mart and various other “marts,” and SunTrust Plaza. His influence has spread worldwide with structures in cities such as San Francisco, Detroit, Tel Aviv, and Shanghai. New, mind-bending projects—including a South Korea skyscraper that’s aiming to be the second-tallest building in the world—prove that John Portman & Associates’ innovation hasn’t slowed as its founder has aged.

Sir John Portman has been knighted by Belgium and served as Atlanta’s honorary consul to Denmark from 1967 to 1996.

Steel Wills A multimillionaire, Portman financed many of his projects himself. During the economic downturn of the early nineties, he owed more than $2 billion for various projects and lost control of Peachtree Center to lenders. Twenty-one Atlanta businessmen, including Governor Joe Frank Harris and Mayor Maynard Jackson, took out an $11,000 full-page Atlanta Journal-Constitution ad of support and encouragement for Portman.

Iron Sharpens Iron Portman’s rivalry with developer Tom Cousins was no secret. The two bid furiously for the same projects over the years, including the World Congress Center (which Cousins won).

This article originally appeared in our May 2011 issue.