Hotel Week: How John Portman Reinvented The Lobby With Visual Excitement

Portman.Hyatt.Regency.Atlanta When the Atlanta Hyatt Regency opened in 1967, its glass elevators and rotating rooftop restaurant were the talk of the Southeast. To me, growing up a couple of hours from Atlanta, the Hyatt represented “the future” as surely as any World's Fair. Architect-developer John Portman had designed it to wow visitors for whom Atlanta represented the big city. As critic Paul Goldberger writes:

Portman devised a scheme for a modern hotel built around an open atrium as a conscious rebuke to the standardized, boxy modern hotels of the nineteen-fifties and -sixties (including a preliminary design of his own, which he rejected as too conventional), based on the belief that in the troubled urban climate of the mid-nineteen-sixties, a new hotel going up in an urban site had to serve as a magnet to attract cautious suburbanites and out-of-towners. Everything about the Hyatt was geared toward visual excitement: a 220-foot tall central atrium, glass elevators, a round, revolving rooftop lounge, perched atop the building like a flying saucer.

Portman.Marriot.Marquis Portman’s design did indeed represent the future of hotels. Its atrium lobby in particular became a much-imitated feature, helping to establish Hyatt as a national brand and Portman as a sought-after architect, especially in the hospitality industry. His iconic hotels include the Atlanta Marriott Marquis, shown to the right, the Westin Bonaventure in downtown L.A. (famous from In the Line of Fire, where Portman's glass elevators were important to the plot), the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, and Embarcadero Center (and its Hyatt) in San Francisco.

Ric Garrido of the Loyalty Traveler blog fondly remembers his teenage awe at the San Francisco Hyatt's atrium and the large metal sculpture that dominates it. (Photo below.)

Back in the 70s sitting in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency at Embarcadero Center provided a respite from the streets of San Francisco, same as today. Here was a large hotel space I could sit and rest my feet, use a free toilet, and drink some water while watching people move vertically through the hotel in the glass elevators and take each other’s photos in front of the sculpture.

Ironically the criticism of John Portman’s hotel atrium designs is that the focus of these large buildings is interior rather than exterior. The buildings are considered exclusionary to the people outside on the city streets. My memories of the Hyatt Regency San Francisco as a place where I could enjoy the beauty and comfort of a grand hotel as a person seeking shelter from the streets defies that criticism. The Hyatt Regency San Francisco is a hotel I have visited for over 30 years, yet I was a registered hotel guest for the first time in 2008.

Portman in effect reinvented the American hotel lobby as it had been experienced in the 19th century, a trend that has intensified over the past decade or so, even as Portman's once-radical designs have come to seem somewhat old-fashioned.

San Francisco Hyatt lobby John Portman On October 17, an exhibit devoted to Portman's work opens at the High Museum in Atlanta. The following description of the Atlanta Hyatt Regency is drawn, with permission, from the catalog, John Portman: Art and Architecture, to be published by the University of Georgia Press.

The hotel, John Portman’s first, revolutionized an entire industry by introducing the atrium concept to contemporary hotel design. The hotel was conceived as a totally new guest experience: the antithesis of the traditional, tightly confined double-corridor hotel. The design goal was to open the interior space to create a dynamic, uplifting environment, one that would bring the energy and life of the city indoors, while providing restaurants, cafés, and bars that would attract visitors, not just guests.

The 22-story concrete structure was figuratively “exploded” to create the huge, sky-lit atrium. With natural light, sculpture, trees, and water, the interior resembles a large outdoor piazza bordered by a sidewalk café. (Originally, the lobby featured a three-story aviary, home to colorful Macaws and other tropical birds.) The glass elevator cabs were exposed, turning the elevators into kinetic sculptures, creating a sense of movement and drama. Passengers on the glass elevators could view the Atlanta skyline as the elevator continued through the atrium roof to the blue-domed revolving restaurant above.

Atlanta Hyatt Regency rooftop restaurant flying saucer night John Portman architect

Many professionals saw the atrium design as a liability—an enormous waste of space. During the hotel’s construction, legendary hotel operator Conrad Hilton was quoted as observing, “That concrete monster will never fly.” When the hotel did open, it was visited by thousands of tourists a day, forming lines around the block. The great success of the original project, which comprised 800 guestrooms, quickly prompted the expansion of two adjacent towers, creating an additional 200 and 350 guestrooms, respectively.

Hyatt’s owners, the Pritzker family of Chicago, were richly rewarded for taking a chance on Portman's unconventional designs. In fact, writes Goldberger in his catalog introduction, the hotel “tied the reputation of the Pritzkers to architecture to such an extent that a dozen years later the family established the Pritzker Prize, which has become the most famous architectural prize in the world.”

[Hyatt Regency Atlanta, 1967, view of the atrium, photo by Michael Portman and Atlanta Marriott Marquis Hotel, 1985, view of the atrium, photo by Jaime Ardiles-Arce, both courtesy of the High Museum of Art. Grand Hyatt Lobby, San Francisco, by Flickr user amnesia_x under Creative Commons license. "Atlanta Lights" by Flickr user Old Shoe Woman, used with permission.]