In Memory of Grace…

As a few months have gone by since Grace’s passing – all of us here at John Portman & Associates – we wanted to share our memories of her and how each day, we do our best to continue to put our best foot forward for this company that she loved so much.

For Grace…


“Grace was the embodiment of leadership. Firm when she needed to be, but had a Mother’s touch to guide us through the many challenges of not just design, but of life. Grace’s courage to continue to put her best self forward, even when she wasn’t feeling 100% is a testament to her convictions to us as a family unit. She will be greatly missed and in our constant memories as we strive to live up to the embodiment of excellence she carried.”

David Bond, John Portman & Associates


“I first met Grace in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Shanghai for a Tomorrow Square work session. As a freshman in the architectural industry, I was impressed by Grace’s professionalism, knowledge and her “grace “. Seven years later, we met in Atlanta again and just by fate and luck, she became my boss and friend. Her diligent work ethic, warm, humor and thoughtful personality influenced me every day. I am saddened by her sudden passing, but I believe now heaven has one more wonderful soul and artist. I will always miss her.”

Angela Zhang, John Portman & Associates


“As so many of JPA China clients have acknowledged, Grace was a much loved and deeply respected member of the John Portman & Associates family who joined us early in her career. And through her work and dedication to John Portman & Associates and her mentor, John Portman, she became an invaluable member of JPA family serving as our President for many years. Grace was an integral part of the John Portman & Associates China office before returning to Harvard for further her studies in their Masters Program. Grace was devoted to all projects and was loved and respected by all JPA clients and will be deeply missed. We all loved Grace. For all of us who knew and loved Grace, the above is representative of us of us.”

Walter Jackson, John Portman & Associates – Shanghai


“In my first moment meeting Grace, she wanted to hear what I was most excited about in joining JPA. I mentioned really hoping one day to have the opportunity of working in China since my wife was Chinese and she seemed more excited about the prospect than myself which brought me warm feelings knowing my company’s president cared about what I cared about as much as me. Then in my first working experience with her she knew how to crack a whip better than anyone I’ve worked with in the sense of creating REAL urgency for everyone on the team without being rude or overwhelming in anyway. It was an honor to have worked with her.”

Adrian Tejada, John Portman & Associates


“35 years ago, the most perfect person walked into my life.  That 1984 day, as John Street methodically navigated the office rows proudly introducing Grace to us JPA faithful our collective lives were forever beautifully altered.  Grace graced an infectious smile, a bubbly effervescent personality perfectly balanced by her extreme intellect and heartfelt ambition. Nevertheless, back in the day Grace was somewhat shy yet we all sensed Grace watching, learning, and waiting for her time to blossom.

Grace would tell me that medicine was her first calling; she had wanted to be a doctor.  Grace would have been an amazing doctor.  Nevertheless, the summers and holidays working with her Uncle in the Philippines, himself an architect, helped steer her down the architectural path. From Cotabato, Mindanao, Philippines to Manila’s University of Santo Tomas to Ohio State University then on to Harvard University Grace never looked back.

Often Grace and I were paired on the same projects. Maybe it was due to our compatible ‘Sheng Xiao’, Chinese Zodiac signs…Grace a ‘Rat’ me a ‘Monkey’.  Whatever the reason, we simply clicked.  We worked hard we played hard, and despite long exhaustive hours creating was fun beyond measure.  We were the last pre-computer group to know the art of physical hand drawing leaving an indelible personal prideful touch somewhat lost in today’s profession. Grace and I often pondered our early budding architect days; she wanted the younger generation to experience the creative joy and pride that we felt.

Grace liked doing things, going places, learning, laughing…living.  Grace and I and often Grace’s vivacious nature-loving roommate Sandy Shobe, also a fellow architect, were typically off somewhere doing what twenty to thirty somethings do…living life the best we could.  Those were special happy days.  The girl’s rented Roxboro Road house not far from Lenox Mall became a hub of tranquil activity.  I taught Grace how to drive a car.  Grace helped me study for the licensing exam.  I cared for her when she contracted a mean bout of measles.  Grace kept us smiling.  We became quite close.

Those early carefree happy days would not last.  Sandy came home one evening, cooked dinner, sat down at the kitchen table and calmly told us that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  Our hearts sank.  At the time, Sandy was arguably Grace’s closest friend; the news was devastating.  Grace and I traveled to Colorado just outside Denver to be with Sandy and her Family during her final days.  Clear blue skies, trout stream laden mountains, and bright yellow aspen trees delivered Grace and her dear friend a most exquisite lasting memory.  Sandy passed a week later, Grace was never the same.

A new purpose seemed bestowed in Grace, her shyness dissolved.  She loved to lead, it was in her DNA. Her unstoppable nurturing love coupled with her command to command was bursting at her seams.  Moving to Shanghai, China helping our company secure an international foothold was her chance, she was ready.  Under Jack Portman’s guidance…first Walt Jackson, shortly after Grace, a year later myself, with Rolf and Monica Stute we blazed trails only our close Shanghai friends and colleagues can appreciate.  Grace was our front line; she made it all work.

During those early Shanghai times words can’t fully describe the stresses dealt on Grace.  Our China travels helped balance the business.  Grace loved to experience China, we all loved the adventure. Of the many recollections there is one memory that remained especially dear, a memory that Grace and I recanted many a time.  It was 1996, “Chinese New Year” holiday.  Grace decided that we should visit Guiln, ride the Li River to Yangshuo to experience a ‘real’ “Chinese New Year” celebration.  Guilin is famous for its spectacular vertical karst limestone topography, majestic Li River, caves, fishing Cormorant birds, and ancient hill towns…truly spectacular. We rented an old Gestapo type motorcycle with side car and headed up to a remote 2,000+ year old mountain village, the middle of nowhere, in search of some indigenous habitats.  The village was small, maybe 50 residents or so.  It must have been lunch time, nobody within sight.  Upon arrival we both needed a rest stop.  Grace conspicuously however quite cautiously headed deep inside an old dilapidated and seemingly empty gray stone livestock barn structure. I patiently waited.  Suddenly, I hear Grace frantically screaming and repeating at the top of her lungs, “IT’S A PIG IT’S A PIG IT’S A PIG…!”.  I ran towards the door, Grace came shooting out the opening arms flailing in the air chased by the most massive grunting squealing porker I’ve even seen!  The Volkswagen sized pig slowed, looked at us and calmly sauntered back inside the barn.  After wiping the tears of fright from Grace’s eyes we both laughed until it hurt.  For me, that natural vulnerability however brave, that cuteness, the subsequent laughter that moment in time is how I want to forever remember Grace.

Eventually, Grace decided that it was time to return Stateside.  A master’s degree from Harvard was the logical choice.  From time to time especially holidays Grace would visit me and my Family in New Jersey.  She was there for me when my Parents passed, she was indeed part of our Family. We visited her wonderful diverse Family who will all remain dear to my heart.  We explored Cambridge together with Grace keeping me scholastically informed of her studies.  The times were certainly different yet equally rewarding.  With Harvard degree in hand she returned to our Atlanta office to no real change, she became bored, frustrated.  She would often and quite seriously contemplate moving to Singapore to start our own architectural office. Making Grace our company President quickly thwarted those sentiments; the rest is JPA history.

Grace could simultaneously be firm, but always kind, and always honest – a true gift.  She addressed her cancer with dignity that I cannot comprehend.  She sometimes iterated that ‘everyone is replaceable’ – but we all can agree that God made only one irreplaceable Grace.  I was recently reminded of a bible verse, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man or woman sharpens another”. Grace and I were a relationship of 2 irons sharpening each other, at least it felt that way.  Occasionally when metals meet sparks fly.  Grace would want our company’s many irons to continue sharpening, testing, pushing and sparking each other for life’s enjoyment of what we do best…continuing to create.

Ironically, today as we celebrate Grace’s life, March 8th is my birthday, “International Women’s Day”, a reasonably proclaimed day in China and around the World.  I can think of no better Women, no better person to honor on this day.  We can all agree that Grace was taken far too soon. One Shanghai Saturday morning, I was in the right place at the right time to save Grace’s life; no doubt I wish I could have been there a second time.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever understand life’s seemingly unjust realities.  Life and time move on unabated.  There is so much that I wanted to tell Grace, so much.  Nevertheless, I do feel that Grace is still with us.  I can hear Grace now, “Is it beautiful yet…?”  Grace, speaking for all that have had the honor of crossing your life’s path, making us all better people, you will always be the most beautiful. I’ll always love you.”

Lell Barnes, John Portman & Associates – Shanghai