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entrepreneur

Raised in Atlanta, he was a natural born entrepreneur.

John Portman was born in his mother’s home town of Walhalla, South Carolina on December 4th, 1924 to John and Edna Portman. He was their only son among six children.

He began selling magazines on the street corner and then created his own "franchise plan" for selling gum in front of Atlanta’s movie theaters. As a youngster and before movie theaters had concession stands, he discovered he could invest in a case of gum and then sell the individual pieces at a profit. He recruited his school mates to stand in front of the theaters with the gum while he rode his bike back and forth between them, collecting money, making change and replenishing their supplies. The hill he rode his bike up and down on Peachtree Street between theaters is now crossed by John Portman Boulevard.

While working as a movie usher at one of those theaters, he first met Jan, the beautiful young lady who would become his wife. In another job held during high school, he parked cars in a downtown parking deck, the Belle Isle Parking Garage. The owner, Mr. Henderson, started him out at 25¢ an hour. During World War II, the government converted the Belle Isle Parking Garage into an office building that housed government agencies. In the mid-1950’s, Portman was a young architect looking for design commissions when he heard that the government was vacating the office building. Using the creativity for which he became renowned, he developed a plan to convert the building into a wholesale furniture mart and he went to meet with Mr. Henderson, his old boss, who still owned the building, to convince him a furniture mart would be a great use for the building. Of course, Portman also proposed that he should be hired as the architect to design the conversion of the building. Mr. Henderson balked, explaining that he did not know anything about running that sort of business. But, he suggested that if Portman really believed in the concept that he had just pitched, then he should create a company to run the furniture mart business, and Mr. Henderson would rent him the building for it. Portman took him up on his offer, and this was the birth of what is now AmericasMart with over eight million square feet of space.

Mr. Portman attended Forest Elementary School, O’Keefe Middle School and Tech High all within very close distance to his family residence on Boulevard in Atlanta. He first pursued his interest in architecture as a student during his high school years at Tech High. At the age of 15, he was bored with mechanical drawing, which was a required course, so he requested that his teacher and administrators allow him to substitute courses in architectural drafting for mechanical drawing. Permission was granted, and even though he was the only architectural drawing student, he was encouraged and supported by his mechanical drawing teacher and this began his lifelong love affair with architecture.

Atlanta Merchandise Mart in Belle Isle Building, 1960. Image courtesy Georgia State University.
John and Jan Portman, wedding photo, 1944
John C. Portman, Jr. and Ben Massell, loan agreement, Atlanta Merchandise Mart, photo courtesy GSU.
Cover of Saturday Evening Post, 1960. Atlanta Merchandise Mart under construction.