John Portman

John Portman was born on December 4, 1924, in South Carolina. Portman was raised in Atlanta and served during World War II. He attended Georgia Tech where he would study and earn his degree in architecture in 1950. He opened his architectural firm in 1953 and named it John Portman and Associates. This company would transform his company into a real-estate company, and eventually become involved in a home decor wholesaler. Not only would his work be in the city of Atlanta, but also in Chicago, Illinois; California, San Francisco; and Detroit, Michigan. Portman would become an important architect and restate developer figure in Atlanta’s development of Peachtree Center and reviving the decaying city. 1

John Portman is one of the most influential architects of all time, as his designs are present in multiple places worldwide including China and Singapore. His architectural work is also present in Peachtree Center in Atlanta. He was one of the most unique developers as he financed and designed his projects. Portman was able to develop many buildings in the Peachtree Center such as the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Atlanta Marriott, the Westin Hotel, the Truist Plaza, The Merchandise Mart, Harris Tower, The Midnight Sun Restaurant, The Peachtree Shopping Gallery, and the Peachtree Center Athletic Club. Portman’s development helped revitalize the downtown area and was essential to privately developing the city which rivaled against the Urban Renewal Plan. Portman would develop Peachtree Center for five decades creating what many would call a “city within a city”.2

The District that is Peachtree Center.

Peachtree Street (1931)

Atlanta Sanborn Map Page 5 (1931)- The block in which the Westin Hotel is located.

Before Peachtree Center was developed, the area was simply just another area that belonged to the city that had diverse occupations. The Atlanta Sanborn Map of 1931 provides maps that indicate that Atlanta was thriving with business and filled with city life. The location of the Merchandise Mart building had tire services, a plumbing supplies shop, a hotel, and office spaces. Where the Westin Hotel stands, once was filled with many interesting occupations. The blocks in which the Merchandise Mart building would expand were parking garages, drug stores, a printing shop, and auto sales services. The block in which the Westin Hotel is located was once occupied by a bus terminal, Keith’s Georgia Theatre, Loew’s Capitol Theatre, the Henry Grady Hotel, The Red Rock Building, and The Henry Grady Office Building. The maps provide evidence that Atlanta in Peachtree was indeed always a commercial area.3

The Merchandise Mart (1961)

The first major development of Peachtree Center would begin with the construction of the Merchandise Mart. In 1961, the Merchandise Mart would prove to be the world’s largest single wholesale marketplace. This building would bring both tourism and stimulate trade in Atlanta. Portman’s intended to attract business in the abandoned area and help establish market facilities for exhibitors and buyers. The Merchandise Mart was to exhibit furniture outlets, jewelry vendors, home decor, floor coverings, fabrics, and lines of appeal. Even before the building opened, the Merchandise Mart was expected to be a success, which occurred. Because of the success of the Merchandise Mart, the addition of two new buildings would take place.  4

Atlanta Constitution Newspaper Coverage of the opening of the building.

The Merchandise Mart Expansion

The expansion of the Merchandise Mart was expected to occur from the initial opening. The first expansion would occur in 1969 when 1 million square feet were added for the mart and in 1979 another 1.2 million square feet were also added. One of the newest architectural features of the buildings would be the installation of aerial walkways. These aerial walkways would connect the buildings to the Peachtree Plaza Hotel. The expansion of the Merchandise Mart attracted more business to come as modern industries became interested in the area during the early 1980s. This included a mart of communications, computers, and hi-tech products owned by Cousins Properties Inc.  5

Atlanta Sanborn Map Page 42 (1931), The Merchandise Mart Expansion Buildings.
Google Maps (2024), The Merchandise Mart buildings today.

The Hyatt Regency (1967)

John Portman and the Hyatt Hotel.

The Hyatt Regency was one of John Portman’s major developments in Peachtree Center as he introduced one of the first major hotels in the area.  Newspaper coverage from 1967, the opening weekend of the hotel, claimed “John Portman, who had designed one of the most spectacular hotels in the country”. The Purpose of building the hotel was to provide rooms for out-of-town buyers from the Merchandise Mart building not far from the Hotel. The hotel was praised for its architectural structure and design. The Hyatt Regency has over 800 guest rooms and is 23 stories tall. From the lobby, the guest room balconies are visible, the elevators were glass birdcages designed to provide a view while on it, and the lobby had the impression of an auditorium. The Hotel proved to be one of the most anticipated buildings as it was the first hotel built in Peachtree Center which is at 265 Peachtree St NE.6

The Peachtree Plaza Hotel (1976)

The Westin Hotel would be Portman’s next anticipated project completed in Atlanta during the late 1970’s. At the time of its opening, the Westin Hotel was known as the Peachtree Center Plaza Hotel. The building’s most distinctive exterior feature is its tall height and glass windows. The building is 70 stories high and was at the time Portman’s tallest project. The building includes 1,100 guest rooms and a skylit lobby in the elevator core. The Atlanta Constitution coverage of the construction of the Peachtree Plaza Hotel mentioned the expectations of success as the hotel would attract people who travel to Atlanta for conventions. The hotel was specifically targeting visitors to the World Congress Center which was under construction at the same time as the hotel. 7

The Westin Hotel in Atlanta.

Marriott Marquis Hotel (1985)

The 1980s would be another decade of success and revitalization of Atlanta when Portman developed the Marriott Marquis Hotel. Before the area was developed, the Atlanta Sanborn map shows how the block had several occupations. The block was home to St. Jospeh Infimary, a battery service station, and several domiciles. This changed once Portman planned to keep adding Hotels. This hotel would have a 50-story lobby and provide over 1,600 rooms for guests. The hotel was anticipated as it was to bring in more competition in the hotel business which Peachtree Center was mostly known for. The hotel was guaranteed to attract people as the MARTA station was nearby and the expressway was on the same street as the hotel. The hotel was set to become the modern conventional hotel at the time, which was unsurprisingly able to surpass the success of both the Hyatt Regency and Westin Hotels. 8

Atlanta Sanborn Map Page 44 (1931).
The Marriott Marquis Hotel

The Truist Plaza (1992)

The Truist Plaza, formerly known as the SunTrust Plaza, is a 60-floor office building completed in 1992. John Portman and SunTrust invested around $70 million for the development and construction of the building. The building was to offer office spaces to corporate companies and bring people to work in the city. The building would include a parking lot that would provide spaces for worker’s vehicles. John Portman would move his operations to the building. SunTrust would do the same by moving their headquarters from five points to the newly constructed building. This building would prove to be one of the most complicated projects for Portman as he was close to bankruptcy after the construction and almost lost his shareholdings of the building after it fell out of the real estate market. Today, the lobby of the Truist Plaza showcases sculptures, art, and furniture designed by Portman. 9 

The Truist Plaza Building

Good Intentions 

John Portman

John Portman’s intentions for the development of Peachtree Center were good as he wanted to revive the city of Atlanta. The city was going through the Urban Renewal Plan, mainly focusing on the development of the intestate expressway. Unlike other developers, Portman had complete freedom of development in the city because of his privatized revitalization campaign. This meant that he was not required to meet federal renewal program regulations and made it easier for no one to interior with his private constructions including the public. Portman’s vision was to also develop the area to attract people, provide jobs, and help Atlanta grow. 10

Criticisms/Controversies

The main criticism of Portman’s architecture is the ariel walkways that are visible throughout Peachtree Center. These walkways have been criticized for discouraging pedestrian interaction and the presence of people in the streets. These ariel walkways were seen as fortress architecture and protection of white-collar citizens from street interactions. Another major criticism of Portman’s development is the lack of interest for the people who needed housing in the aftermath of the Urban Renewal displacement. Portman’s developments were mainly intended for business purposes and to benefit Peachtree Center economically. This is evident with the area mainly being surrounded by hotels and the market center which are essentially business sites.

Conclusion

The development of Peachtree Center is fascinating as it happened over five decades with the vision of creative control of John Portman. The architecture also was unique as it was considered Neo-futuristic and innovative constructions. Portman was able to offer much more than what the Urban Renewal Plan offered in the city and did it on his own terms. Even though Peachtree Center did not revitalize the entire downtown district, it did manage to establish businesses and provide jobs near Peachtree Street. For years, the area provided jobs for construction, hotels, and for all kinds of industries. Portman was able to bring skyline buildings into the city and create a modern visual of the city of Atlanta. Today, Peachtree Center remains a commercial district and operates as John Portman envisioned. 11

Peachtree Center View.
  1. Craig, Robert. “John Portman.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, last modified Nov 3, 2020. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/john-portman-1924-2017/ ↩︎
  2. Way, Iren Holliman. “”Creating a City Within a City”: John Portman’s Peachtree Center and Private Urban Renewal in Atlanta.” Atlanta Studies. January 15, 2019. https://doi.org/10.18737/atls20190115
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  3. The Sanborn Company New York. “Insurance Map of Atlanta Georgia Volume One 1931”. Georgia State University Library Map Collection, ProQuest Digital Sanborn Maps.  ↩︎
  4. Montgomery, Jim. “Merchandise Mart seen here by 1962: Furniture Exhibits’ Success Encourages Young Promoters Portman, Martin, Macon.” The Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution (1950-1968), Feb 03, 1957, Sunday ed. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/merchandise-mart-seen-here-1962/docview/1635828847/se-2
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  5. Tom Walker, Staff Writer. “Construction Begins on another Expansion of Merchandise Mart.” The Atlanta Constitution (1946-1984), Dec 19, 1983. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/construction-begins-on-another-expansion/docview/1622423747/se-2↩︎
  6. Hemphill, Paul. “The Astonishing: Mr. Portman.” The Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution (1950-1968), Jul 30, 1967, Sunday ed. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/astonishing/docview/1635936516/se-2↩︎
  7. TOM HENDERSON Constitution, Business Writer. “Plaza Hotel Beginning to Soar.” The Atlanta Constitution (1946-1984), Jan 17, 1975. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/plaza-hotel-beginning-soar/docview/1617521529/se-2↩︎
  8. Tom Walker, Staff Writer. “Metro Area Hotels Spruce Up for Marriott Marquis’ Arrival.” The Atlanta Constitution (1946-1984), Jun 14, 1984. https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/metro-area-hotels-spruce-up-marriott-marquis/docview/1622482923/se-2↩︎
  9. Saporta, Maria. “Office Building Planned Atop SunTrust Garage.” The Atlanta Journal the Atlanta Constitution, Jan 26, 1999. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/office-building-planned-atop-suntrust-garage/docview/247755553/se-2↩︎
  10. “Saporta, Maria. “Office Building Planned Atop SunTrust Garage.” The Atlanta Journal the Atlanta Constitution, Jan 26, 1999. https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/office-building-planned-atop-suntrust-garage/docview/247755553/se-2.

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  11. “Groundbreaker.” Portman Archives. Accessed April 26, 2024. https://www.portmanarchives.com/groundbreaker.
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