John Portman: renaming Harris — a street that ‘goes through the heart of my life’
By Maria Saporta
In grand style — with the largest green and white sign to ever adorn an Atlanta city street, Harris Street was renamed John Portman Boulevard at ceremony at the corner of Spring and Harris streets Wednesday morning.
A heated transparent tent was installed at the corner where attendees could see many of the buildings that John Portman Jr. had designed and developed along and besides the Peachtree ridge downtown.
In fact, the tent was only a few yards away from where Portman got his start — creating a market center in a former parking garage.
The event was kicked of by Albert Maslia, one of the champions who worked tirelessly to get Harris Street renamed in honor of Portman.
Maslia remarked that the parallel street to the south was now Andrew Young International Boulevard and the major east-west street just north of Harris Street was Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard — named after two former mayors and national leaders from Atlanta.
“What a trio of streets to have leading to Centennial Olympic Park,” Maslia said. “It’s a great day for Atlanta.”
WSB-TV anchor Monica Pearson served as emcee — who described how a Georgia Tech graduate had been able to transform 14 downtown Atlanta blocks with his buildings. The former Harris Street is within a block of several of those icons, including the Marriott Marquis, Peachtree Center, the Westin Peachtree Plaza, AmericasMart and Portman’s iconic Hyatt Regency Atlanta. The SunTrust Plaza is just a block away from the street that is now named after him.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed called it a good day for Atlanta, a moment that everyone should savor.
“Few men have made their mark on the City of Atlanta in the way that John Portman has,” Reed said. “He literally has changed our skyline.”
Reed said he was especially grateful that in a recent New York Times article about his career, Portman made a point of talking about his love for Atlanta.
City Council President Ceasar Mitchell said Portman had helped define Atlanta in so many ways, not just with its skyline and “wonderful” architecture.
“Great cities are defined by great men and women who dream beyond the possible – that communities can come together and can co-exist,” Mitchell said. “Those are the greatest architects. Among the greatest architects, when it comes to the souls of men and women, when it comes to growing together, is John Portman.”
Mitchell described that when he was a “young black man” growing up in Atlanta, he struggled with the racial divisions in the city. Then, when he was 20-years-old, he had a “chance encounter” Portman, who helped him see beyond the divide.
“Because of his grace and his openness, I realized we were one city,” Mitchell said.
Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, one of Portman’s closest friends, did a little bit of preaching and chiding.
“What we see is what we get,” Young said. “But what we have is what we can’t see and what we know very little about. I just don’t believe that if John Portman had not married well you probably would never have heard his name.”
Young was looking directly at Portman’s wife — Jan, when he was making those remarks.
Young said one of Portman’s greatest contributions to Atlanta has been the AmericasMart, which he said was the largest wholesale market center in the world.
“We are not just talking about a local street,” Young said. “We are talking bout the main street of humanity, coming together in a free market world….”
A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress who worked for the Portman Cos. for decades, complained about having to follow Andrew Young, recalling a time when they were planning an event at the company and they had scheduled Portman to follow Young in the program.
“Never, never, ever put me behind Andrew Young,” Portman told Robinson at the time. “I just want you to note who is behind Andrew Young today. It’s wisdom like that that gets your name on a street.”
Robinson said Portman’s international vision for Atlanta was decades ahead of nearly every one else.
“If there ever was a favorite son of Atlanta and one of its greatest exports along with Coca-Cola, it’s John Portman,” Robinson said.
Then Portman accepted a resolution from City Council before walking down memory lane — recalling how he grew up about three blocks away from there and how he would ride his bike “up to the hill” — the ridge along Peachtree Street.
“The hill has special significance for me,” Portman said. “I didn’t realize that until I got a little age on me.”
Portman, who will turn 87 in December, said that although he had dreams and aspirations when he was young, he “never dreamed, it never crossed my mind, that I would be standing here today.”
Then he described the former Harris Street — now John Portman Boulevard — as “a street that goes through the heart of my life” and a street that travels through his professional career.
“I love this city. I will fight for this city. I believe in this city, and last but not least, I believe in me,” Portman said. “You only pass this way once.”