As the media, friends and family gathered at Peachtree Center’s 230 Peachtree to launch his latest architectural achievement Wednesday, iconic Atlanta architect and developer John Portman got misty for a moment.
“Yes, I’m in love with this city,” Portman, 90, conceded as tears filled his eyes. “As I get older, I find I get more emotional.”
Fifty years after constructing the office complex at 230 Peachtree Street as part of what would become the convention hub of downtown with his sprawling AmericasMart, later joined by Portman’s Hyatt Regency, the Peachtree Center trio of office buildings, Marriott Marquis and Westin Peachtree Plaza, Portman Holdings reacquired the structure in 2015.
On Wednesday, as visitors walked into the redeveloped mixed-use property for the first time, featuring a brand-new Hotel Indigo and his namesake JP Atlanta restaurant, Portman’s signature touches were evident everywhere. From the silver modern sculpture named Belle out front perched on the plaza to the water features inside, the circles, the sexy curves, the wood and glass elements, the modern art paintings and a jaw-droppingly gorgeous sculptural staircase, visitors felt as if they were walking through a museum.
Flanked by old friends and fellow Atlanta change agents, Andrew Young and Charlie Loudermilk and his wife Jan, Portman was feeling reflective, recalling the start of his career in this once-scrappy part of the city. “For me, this has been the greatest city in the world,” Portman told the assembled. “[Former Atlanta mayor] Bill Hartsfield once called this the greatest city in the world. At the time, we were a series of Quonset huts! But he was right. He once told me, “You gotta stake your claim and then work like hell so they can’t call you a liar!’ We still have that ‘Can do, Will do and Get out of the Way!’ spirit. We have that spirit and the vitality to make it happen.”
Later, waiting for a press conference to begin upstairs, Portman Holdings senior advisor Mickey Steinberg joined me at the railing as we gazed down at the as-yet-unopened sculptural staircase.
“How do you like it?” Steinberg 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.”
After adding to the skylines of cities around the globe, Portman might have been forgiven for handing over the details of 230 Peachtree’s re-imaging to his talented team of architects. But Portman’s presence is everywhere. There’s even a photography display of his trademark architectural designs hanging on the wall by a Hotel Indigo seating area.
“Mr. Portman’s hand is everywhere in here,” Mickey Steinberg said. “That was my impression when I walked in here and my impression back when he was drawing it up. But this is much more sophisticated than the John Portman who built this is 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 took him by surprise. “I haven’t seen him like that before but you have to realize this was the first of his buildings where he said, “I’m not going to let you take this away.” He reclaimed it and he put another stake in his sizable legacy, too. This city has a place in his heart. When you sit with him the way I do when we go to lunch, you get to see just how much this means to him. It always comes back home to this. This is where he learned his trade [at Georgia Tech] and where he first started practicing his trade. He’s had a huge impact all over the world. But this is his home, his heart. For Mr. Portman, this was personal.”
At the press conference, I asked AmericasMart president and CEO Jeff Portman
about his father’s 50-year connection to 230 Peachtree. “He’s always been emotional,” Jeff Portman told me. “He denies it but he’s passionate and emotional about every project. This hits home for him primarily because of its relationship to AmericasMart, which originated in a parking garage down the street. Now it’s grown into a 7.2 million square foot complex. It brings him back to his beginnings and it reminds him of all the great things he’s done in the past but more importantly, the people who have been there along the way. People like Mickey Steinberg and Andrew Young and everyone in this room who has helped him accomplish his dreams.”
Both Hotel Indigo and JP Atlanta are now open for business at 230 Peachtree.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.