By David Pendered
John Portman finally has a street named in his honor.
John Portman Boulevard at Historic Harris Street is the new name of Harris Street, which connects Centennial Olympic Park with Peachtree Street, and on to a gateway to the Downtown Connector.
The renaming approved by the Atlanta City Council culminates a battle that has raged almost a year. The council renamed Harris Street in May, but the matter was taken to court by historic preservationists who were opposed by civic and business leaders – including former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.
Portman’s major advocate in the most recent battle was Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell.
“Atlantans from all walks know of the great contributions John Portman has made to the development of our city, particularly the role he played in the revitalization of downtown Atlanta in the 1970s,” Mitchell said in a statement after the council’s Aug. 15 vote.
“Atlanta is a city that is constantly evolving and we must honor those past and present who have played a positive role in our city’s growth and evolution,” Mitchell continued. “A street-naming in Portman’s honor is befitting of his contributions and legacy.”
Portman helped raise Atlanta’s profile through his architectural works that remade the Peachtree Street corridor. Portman also has established iconic structures in cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore.
It is Portman’s civil rights legacy that Councilman Michael Julian Bond recalled in a conversation after the council voted in May to rename Harris Street in Portman’s honor. Bond’s father, Julian Bond, is an icon in the civil rights movement.
“John Portman added the modern cornerstone of what we call modern Atlanta,” Bond said in May. “Not just a contribution to our tax value and a contribution to our skyline.
“John Portman created the first integrated restaurant, the first integrated conversations – open – around this city,” Bond said. “Moving this paper forward is a good lesson on how best to honor the history of Atlanta.”
Portman Boulevard is a block north of Andrew Young International Boulevard and a block south of Baker Street, where the City Council voted in May to install street toppers to recognize civil rights leader Xernona Clayton.
The legislation approved by the City Council last week, by an 8-6 vote, was crafted in hopes of withstanding another legal challenge.
That said, the Atlanta Preservation Center is raising money for its Street Renaming Legal Defense, and the executive director of the Wren’s Nest, the home of Brer Rabbit author Joel Chandler Harris, has opined against renaming a street that honors one of the author’s cousins.
Here are some highlights of Portman’s legacy that the City Council released after voting to rename Harris Street in Portman’s honor:
- Without public financial assistance, created Peachtree Center by designing and redeveloping 14 city blocks in Atlanta’s central business district, an important factor in preventing the abandonment of the central city by the business community;
- Designed the Peachtree Plaza Hotel, which gained landmark status within the city as Atlanta’s tallest building from its completion, in 1976, to 1987 when it was overtaken by One Atlantic Center. The building opened as the tallest hotel in the world; in 1977, however, it was surpassed by its architectural twin, the central hotel tower of the Portman-designed Renaissance Center in Detroit. The Peachtree Plaza Hotel opened as the tallest building in the southeastern United States and still today serves as one of the most recognizable buildings in the city’s magnificent skyline;
- Developed AmericasMart, the catalyst for the rapid growth of Atlanta’s convention and hospitality industries that established Atlanta as one of the nation’s premier convention and international cities;
- Founding member and leader of Central Atlanta Progress, an organization that contributes to the viability and growth of the Central Business District.
- Founding member of Action Forum, a small but very influential bi-racial group of behind-the-scenes business leaders who helped establish Atlanta as a role model for racial integration in the 1960s;
- Opened two non-segregated upscale restaurants when he completed the Atlanta Merchandise Mart in 1961.