At least a thousand mourners paid their respects to the memory of John Portman at AmericasMart today. Among the speakers, which included three of his sons, was Andrew Young, the former mayor and United Nations ambassador who was close friends with Portman, who died December 29 at 93.
Below is a transcript of Young’s remarks, edited for clarity:
I never heard John talk much about church. He said that he didn’t have to. And then I looked at [his] amazing display of architecture, and it looked like he turned the world into a cathedral. In fact, I look around here, and this is a cathedral of commerce. There actually are more nationalities doing business in here than there are in the United Nations. And we take it for granted. And then I wondered, where did all this come from? One night, Charlie Loudermilk, Herman Russell, John, and I got together and, as they were prone to do, they started arguing about who started out the poorest. The way they decided was, who was the last one to get indoor plumbing? Of course, John wins everything. He was the last one to get indoor plumbing of this gathering of millionaires around the table.
And that was sort of the key to his success. It was his rise from relative poverty—the fact that he talked very proudly about riding his bicycle around his neighborhood, throwing newspapers at 5 o’clock in the morning. He said that even then he loved this city and wanted to do something to make it even greater. It was not easy. He was rejected from Georgia Tech’s school. I don’t know why. It was an elite kind of school and he was not one of the elite Atlantans. And so to get his architecture training he joined the Navy, and in taking the naval exam he qualified for Annapolis, and then they transferred him to Georgia Tech on a scholarship. So nothing was easy for John Portman. Everything was a struggle. Everything seemed to make him stronger. We were just coming together racially but somehow he and Herman Russell had gotten together, mainly out of their [history of] poverty. John had ideas, and Herman was a builder, and they started as partners, with Herman doing the dry wall contracting stuff for [Portman’s] first buildings before there was a concept of affirmative action. And then as we ran into difficulty nationally, John was one of those with Charlie and the bank presidents and the CEOs of major Atlanta corporations to create the Atlanta Action Forum. They didn’t do much until there was a crisis. Normally they just sat around and tried to understand each other and see the cities from the different points of view of their businesses and their births. But in a crisis they could act. In 1965-66, when other cities were blowing up and burning down, they decided that the answer was jobs. And so two dozen CEOs got on the phone and in one week called their subcontractors and said, “We need you to create summer jobs.” And 6,000 summer jobs were created for young struggling poor people in the city of Atlanta.
John was always looking around and trying to just be. And he couldn’t have done any of it without [his wife] Jan. For 73 years [of marriage] for her to put up with him was not easy. Because he was perpetually driven. And yet she is as calm and serene and angelic as she was 73 years ago, I imagine. For she was a saint in his life that helped him to deal with anything that he could not talk to anybody else about. So we know that they will always be together.
My wife is a schoolteacher, and there’s one thing I remembered from high school that she likes, and I don’t particularly like it, but she asked me to recite it. It’s “Thanatopsis” [by William Cullen Bryant].
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
Now, normally, that would be enough. But not for John Portman. I can’t imagine John Portman laying down.
He gave me a sculpture recently. I was really asking for a miniature of the one he has in front of the Indigo Hotel, which I admire. Instead he gave me this white . . . something? I put it on my desk and it sits there and I stare at it all the time, trying to figure it out. I said him, “Y’know I relate to most of your sculpture. I even related to the clash of colors in his paintings.” He always used primary colors because he didn’t want a world where everything blended. He wanted a world where people could be true to themselves and where the clashes of colors were forced upon you and you had to appreciate everything and everybody, different though they may be. Everything he had and everything he did had some powerful social meaning and purpose. But I couldn’t understand this.
But then I went to little church in Portland last month. And they had a Church of the Still Small Voice. And when we went into the church, the leader said, “I want you to imagine getting in an elevator and rising up into the clouds, and as you rise, let your mind relax and calm, and leave the pressures and problems of the world behind you. And listen to that still small voice within you.” And it was though I was going up, and as we got up into the clouds, my mind was calm, and I began to feel a spirituality that I’m normally too busy to pay much attention to. And when I came back [to Atlanta] and looked at John’s sculpture on my desk—it’s white, it’s a material that they make bathtubs out of and nobody uses it artistically very much—I had a feeling that this is sort of a womb of the spirit. As I sit there before it, ideas come from the center of it, and they cut off the distractions around and they fill me with something that I don’t understand and takes me a while to figure out: It’s a peace that passes understanding.
When I related that to John Portman, it was as though the words of the Lord’s Prayer had become art. “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven.” John tried to bring the spirit of heaven to the least of these God’s children, all over the world. And he’s not gonna stop. Death is not an end; it’s a transition. Everybody that I’ve talked to who had near-death experiences, including Martin Luther King, Jr., they talked about going through a tunnel of light and experiencing something they couldn’t understand but that was transformative. And so John Portman is home, waiting on us, declaring that we too should make this earth more like the kingdom of God.