My first job after graduating from the University of Florida in Architecture was as an Intern Architect for John Portman & Associates in Atlanta. There are reasons for that.
Just as I grew up in a tiny suburb of Atlanta called Sandy Springs in the early 1960’s,
so had the Peachtree Center mixed use development grown in downtown Atlanta.
When the Hyatt Regency opened in 1967, the city, and the country, was abuzz talking about the most amazing new hotel. I was only 5, so it may have taken me a couple years to make it to the Hyatt Regency, but when I did, it was a major mind-expanding experience.
It was my ah-ha moment, when I realized the inspirational importance of architecture.
The Hyatt Regency Atlanta was the very first modern atrium hotel in the world.
Prior to this, modern hotels were mediocre copies of European Bauhaus hotels or the new American Motor Hotel (quickly shortened to Mo-tel). Atlanta had the glam-but-ersatz Atlanta Cabana. Miami had the famous Fontainbleau. But when the Regency Hyatt House opened, the world’s hotel industry was reborn. No more small lobbies, even if designers had started giving the people mid-century glamour.
Portman conceived a hotel lobby that was dynamic, personal, and entertaining.
The Atlanta hotel had a 22 story skylit atrium, glass elevators zipping up into the ceiling, a modern silver and gold shining sculpture to help lead your eyes up, and a wrought iron canopy hanging down a couple hundred feet over the elevated pod-shaped bar. Of course that wasn’t enough– Portman designed a space-age revolving restaurant on the roof under a brilliant blue dome, called the Polaris. Everyone went there, from all over Atlanta, and from all over the world.
It was one of Atlanta’s first ah-ha moments, too!
Portman had first built the Merchandise Mart in 1961 and went on to create Peachtree Center (1965-1975) which was a much-needed rebirth of downtown Atlanta. Since the automobile, Lenox Square and other suburban ideals had sucked the life out of Five Points, the center of Atlanta commerce and retail for almost 100 years.
Peachtree Center was the epicenter of the new, modern Atlanta.
When you stood on narrow Peachtree Street, the tall buildings seemed to extend way into the heavens. And we were proud Atlantans to be modern and forward-thinking. John Portman helped us feel that way. Had he not created the new downtown, Atlantans may have not felt so modern and downtown Atlanta may have been deserted completely for the suburbs. Peachtree Center was, at that time, four tall, narrow office towers with a high-styled restaurant sunken in the middle called The Midnight Sun, one of Atlanta’s first integrated restaurants, I understand. The Merchandise Mart was across the street and came to become the largest wholesale gift market in the country. Interestingly, my family eventually moved to Florida opening a retail store and we spent many weeks each year shopping and selling at what had become America’s Mart.
- Embarcadero Center, San Francisco
I went to work with Portman in 1984. By this time he was building the Marriott Marquis at Times Square New York and had already built the Westin Peachtree Plaza (1976), Detroit’s Renaissance Center (1973-1981), L.A.’s Westin Bonaventure (1974-1976), and most of the Embarcadero Center, started in 1971, in San Francisco including the Hyatt Regency San Francisco (1973). I was honored to work on the renovation of NYC’s Rockefeller Center Mall, the Marriott Marquis Atlanta and New York, Emory Dobbs University Center, Shanghai Center, J.W. Marriott San Francisco, Marina Square Singapore, American Cancer Society Atlanta, Northpark Town Center Atlanta, as well as urban planning projects in Atlanta and Asia.
Inforum, now American Cancer Society, Atlanta
Of course, there have been nay-sayers. The American Institute of Architects, had a problem with Portman, for whatever reason, but now is a highly honored Fellow. Urban designers have criticized some of Portman’s work for turning inward, away from the city. But the area around Peachtree Center was not so peachy at the time , so he has had logical reasons to open up of close off certain projects and now opens his designs to the street much more often. Even San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center was designed to be street friendly.
In the years since, Portman has designed buildings in over 60 cities in many countries of the world, including China and other parts of Asia. And the architecture is strong. They are still places where people are entertained, feel comfortable, and are many times awed by the power of architecture and design.