Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, Portmeirion’s designer, denied repeated claims that the design was based on the town of Portofino, Italy. He stated only that he wanted to pay tribute to the atmosphere of the Mediterranean.
He did, however, draw from a love of the Italian village stating, “How should I not have fallen for Portofino? Indeed its image remained with me as an almost perfect example of the man-made adornment and use of an exquisite site.” Williams-Ellis designed and constructed the village between 1925 and 1975. He incorporated fragments of demolished buildings, including works by a number of other architects. Portmeirion’s architectural bricolage and deliberately fanciful nostalgia have been noted as an influence on the development of postmodernism in architecture in the late 20th century.
The main building of the hotel and the cottages “White Horses”, “Mermaid”, and “The Salutation” had been a private estate called Aber Iâ (Welsh: Ice estuary), developed in the 1850s on the site of a late 18th Century foundry and boatyard. Williams-Ellis changed the name (which he had interpreted as “frozen mouth”) to Portmeirion: “Port-” from its place on the coast; “-meirion” from the county of Merioneth (Meirionydd) in which it was sited. The very minor remains of a mediaeval caste (known variously as Castell Deudraeth, Castell Gwain Goch and Castell Aber Iâ) are in the woods just outside the village, recorded by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) in 1188.
In 1931 Williams-Ellis bought from his uncle, Sir Osmund Williams, Bt, the Victorian crenellated mansion Castell Deudraeth with the intention of incorporating it into the Portmeirion hotel complex, but the intervention of the war and other problems prevented this. Williams-Ellis had always considered the Castell to be “the largest and most imposing single building on the Portmeirion Estate” and sought ways to incorporate it. Eventually, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the European Regional Development Fund as well as the Wales Tourist Board, his original aims were achieved and Castell Deudraeth was opened as an 11 bedroom hotel and restaurant on August 20, 2001 by Welsh opera singer Bryn Terfel.
The grounds contain an important collection of rhododendrons and other exotic plants in a wild-garden setting.Portmeirion is now owned by a charitable trust, and has always been run as a hotel, which uses the majority of the buildings as hotel rooms or self-catering cottages, together with shops, a cafe, tea-room, and restaurant. Portmeirion is today a top tourist attraction in North Wales