In February 2014, I was working on a story for Atlanta magazine about the grand reopening of the Polaris restaurant, John C. Portman, Jr.’s iconic revolving blue spaceship atop the Hyatt Regency. He was reluctant to sit for an interview on the subject. Finally, after informing his assistants I’d rather spike the piece than write around the building’s architect, Portman agreed to talk.
Sitting in his spare, modernist office overlooking John Portman Boulevard on the fifth floor of the SunTrust building downtown, the architect, then 90, explained, “Usually, after I finish something, I’m done thinking about it. It’ll be like you when you finish this article. You’re on to the next thing, and that’s how it is with building as well. I don’t really dwell on it that much.”
“Architecture is an imposition art,” he continued. “You put it out there and people have to decide whether to like it or not. They don’t have a say so. Architecture gets razed, too. Once you launch it, it has to defend itself. If you’re lucky and you build the Parthenon, your work remains. It’s still there. All I ever wanted to do in Atlanta was create something that would elevate the city and take it to another level.”
Whether he would have liked it or not, Portman, who died December 29 at age 93, and his storied architectural legacy will likely be discussed in much detail Friday during his public memorial service at 12:30 p.m. at the AmericasMart Building 3 atrium downtown. The structure, erected as the Merchandise Mart in 1961, was Portman’s first great success as a young Georgia Tech graduate.
He would go on to develop the multi-block Peachtree Center for the nation’s conventioneers, the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, the Westin Peachtree Plaza, the Marriott Marquis, and the SunTrust Plaza where his Portman Holdings offices employs a staff dedicated to bringing his structures to skylines across the globe, including Shanghai, China; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Warsaw, Poland; Mumbai, India; San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, and Detroit.
But Portman’s career didn’t really reach the launch pad until he put the Polaris and the Hyatt Regency into orbit atop the Atlanta skyline in 1967. The first atrium hotel of its kind was a real roll of the dice. “Were we trying to build a landmark?” asks Mickey Steinberg, the structural engineer on the project in reply to my naïve question. “Are you kidding? No! We had no idea. At the time, we couldn’t sell it. We couldn’t give the thing away!”
Six or seven stories into construction, Portman and company invited hotel magnate Conrad Hilton to lunch atop the Merchandise Mart, certain he would snap up the innovative structure next door.
“We selected the Top of the Mart restaurant because we wanted Hilton to look over and see the construction,” Portman recalled. “He had spent the morning walking around. At some point during the luncheon, he turned to us and said, ‘That concrete monster will never fly.’ I was afraid some of the investors were going to jump off the roof.”
The project was off-loaded to the Pritzker family, owners of the Hyatt motel airport chain. The structure became a game changer for the brand. “It was an exciting time in Atlanta,” recalled Portman. “It was the launch of a new downtown. We did the Mart in 1961, and all these people were suddenly coming to town and needed a place nearby to stay. We hadn’t built a new downtown hotel in 40 years. But I didn’t want to build just another set of bedrooms.”
The Hyatt Regency’s 22-story atrium also enticed Portman to reimagine the lifts taking guests to their rooms.
“Now that we had this atrium space, I didn’t want the elevators to be in a solid shaft,” Portman recalled. “I wanted to pull the elevator out. I wanted the elevator to be a kinetic sculpture in the space so people could watch this thing go up and down. Not only to see it change positions but to be able to enjoy it from the inside. It was about people enjoying it spatially. I didn’t want people looking at their shoes. The foundation of the entire project was trying to understand how people experience space and how space can have an effect on people. It’s like creating a symphony. You use space as the notes, and then you take people through it. The space becomes not just a box for people, but an event. Any building is just a thing until people get there and use it. Whenever I create anything, I take a holistic approach, everything from the paintings, to the sculpture, to the furniture. You’re creating an environment for people. You can’t get away from the human interface. In the final analysis, it’s about life. It is life.”
Conceding Portman’s success, in 1971, Conrad Hilton erected the Atlanta Hilton across the street, complete with a rooftop restaurant and exterior glass elevators. I baited my reportorial hook to see if Portman would nibble and asked him if he felt vindicated when Hilton constructed his own atrium hotel concept literally across the street, five years after scoffing at his “concrete monster.”
A slight smile crossed Portman’s lips for a second and he told me in his lilting, mannered South Carolina accent, “I was told back in those days shortly after the Hyatt opened here that there was a meeting in New Orleans and Conrad Hilton was quoted as saying, ‘In order to understand the hotel of the future, you’ve got to understand this thing in Atlanta.’ It showed me at least, he was an open-minded thinker.”
Forced to sell off part of Peachtree Center by the early 1990s due to mounting debt, Portman was able to re-acquire his beloved structure at 230 Peachtree Street in 2015 and immediately began planning his legacy project. In 2016, at the grand reopening of 230 Peachtree Street, now the home of the downtown Hotel Indigo, standing beside friend and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young at the ribbon cutting, Portman got misty for a moment.
“Yes, I’m in love with this city,” he told the assembled crowd, as tears welled in his eyes. “As I get older, I find I get more and more emotional.” As Atlantans strolled the mixed-use space for the first time, you felt as if you were walking through a John Portman museum. Portman’s signature touches were evident everywhere: from the namesake JP Atlanta restaurant and the modern silver sculpture named Belle perched out front to the water features, the circles, the sexy curves, the wood and glass elements, the contemporary art, and the show-stopping centerpiece—a sculptural glass staircase in the hotel lobby.
As I gazed down on the floating stairs, Mickey Steinberg sidled up next to me. “How do you like it?” he asked, grinning. “I was with him 50 years ago when he built this place the first time! This is really a statement about what Atlanta is going to do with buildings in the future. We used to tear them down. This is more reflective of today. We turned this into something new. But this is much more sophisticated than [the place] John Portman built in 1965. This represents all the wisdom he’s acquired over 50 years. You feel like you’re walking through an art gallery.”
Steinberg says Portman’s unexpected public display of emotion that morning took him by surprise. “I haven’t seen him like that before. This city has a place in his heart. It always comes back home to this. This is where he learned his trade [at Georgia Tech] and where he first started practicing it. He’s had a huge impact all over the world. But this is his home, his heart. For Mr. Portman, this was personal.”
Back in his office on that winter day in 2014, I asked Portman if he planned to look in on the new Johnson Studio redesign of his Polaris space. He shrugged and said, “Probably, I will. But I’m not much of an over-the-shoulder guy. I’m more interested in what’s next.”
But Portman conceded he was pleased that in 2011 his hometown had renamed the stretch of Harris Street outside his office in his honor. Allowing himself a moment to gaze out the window at all he had built, he said, “From the [Centennial Olympic] Park to the Mart to here, we practically own the street! I got to make this statement.” A moment later, he softly added, “This street out here runs through my life.”
As the world stops Friday to honor the life and legacy of John Portman, Atlantans can remember the architect and developer with ease. All we have to do is look up.