One of Atlanta’s First Ah-Ha Moments

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.

Peachtree Center


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.

The atrium of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta
The atrium of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta

4c91bb06a5c01cbfb803fc97827d3bb3 ef3a3621f2640597eeabdacad6f80824


The Polaris
The Polaris

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.

Original Fontainebleau Hotel Lobby
Original Fontainebleau Hotel Lobby 1953
The lobby of the Atlanta Cabana 1958
The fabulous Atlanta Cabana on Peachtree across from Backstreet
The fabulous Atlanta Cabana on Peachtree across from Backstreet

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.

Hyatt Regency San Francisco at Enbarcadero Center
Hyatt Regency San Francisco
Inside the Hyatt Regency San Francisco
Inside the Hyatt Regency San Francisco
Master Plan for Embarcadero Center  San Francisco
Master Plan for Embarcadero Center
San Francisco


Embarcadero Center, San Francisco
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.

Dobbs University Center at Emory
 Dobbs University Center at Emory
Dobbs University Center at Emory
Dobbs University Center at Emory
Apparel Mart, now America’s Mart
Northpark Offices
Northpark Offices
Atlanta Marriott Marquis;
Atlanta Marriott Marquis
Atlanta Marriott Marquis
atl marriott marquis
Atlanta Marriott Marquis
Marriott Marquis at Times Square


Inforum, now American Cancer Society, Atlanta

Inforum, now American Cancer Society, Atlanta
SunTrust Plaza, Atlanta
SunTrust Garden of
SunTrust Garden Offices, where Coca-Cola is bringing 2000 tech workers to downtown Atlanta
SunTrust Plaza
SunTrust Plaza, Atlanta
SunTrustPlaza_Ext-Night_(c)TimothyHursley (1)
SunTrust Plaza, Atlanta
SunTrust Plaza, Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Peachtree Center
Los Angeles Bonaventure Hotel
Entelechy-II, Portman’s Home on Sea Island
Entelechy-II, Portman’s Home on Sea Island
Entelechy-II, Portman’s Home on Sea Island
Entelechy-II, Portman’s Home on Sea Island
Entelechy-II, Portman’s Home on Sea Island


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.

Renaissance Hotel Schaumburg, IL
Taj Wellington Mews, Mumbai India
taj wellington mews mumbai
Taj Wellington Mews, Mumbai India
westin charlotte
Westin Charlotte, NC
Suzhou Du Shu Lake Project, Suzhou China
Wenzhou Zhixin Plaza
Wenzhou Zhixin Plaza, Wenzhou China
Greenland Center China
Greenland Yinchuan Super Tall Project, Yinchuan China
capital sguare kuala lampur
Capital Square Kuala Lampur
Brooks Library Norfolk State Va
Norfolk State University, VA Master Plans & Brooks Library
Bejing Yintai Center
Beijing Yintai Centre, Bejing China
Beijing Yintai Centre, Bejing China
Beijing Yintai Centre, Bejing China
pic (1)
Beijing Yintai Centre, Bejing China
park hyatt hyperadad
Park Hyatt Hyperadad, India
park hyatt india
Park Hyatt Hyperadad, India
Indian School of Business, Hyperabad, India
Incheon 151 Tower At Songdo Landmark City, Incheon, South Korea
Tomorrow Sq Shanghai
Tomorrow Square, Shanghai, China
Cheda International Financial Center, Jinan China
Academic Center – Georgia Gwinnett College, Lawrenceville (Atlanta), Ga
Ga Southern Col Edu
College Of Education Building – Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA
Zhijiang Fortune Finance Center
Zhijiang Fortune Finance Center
westin warsaw poland
Westin Warsaw, Poland
Tomorrow Square, Shanghai China
Zhejiang Fortune
Tianlong Center
Guri new town master plan
Guri New Town Master Plan, China
Tianlong Center
Hy Req Hangzhou China
Hyatt Regency Hangzhou, China
GA Gwinnett Col Academic Ctr
Georgia Gwinnett College, Academic Center, Atlanta
Hilton Bayfront San Diego
Hilton Bayfront San Diego
Jin Hongqiao International Ctr Shanghai
Jin Hongqiao International Center, Shanghai
Nashville Convention Center Hotel
Shanghai Daewoo Business Center



3 thoughts on “One of Atlanta’s First Ah-Ha Moments

  1. Thanks for the fresh perspective on John Portman’s work. Here in San Francisco it was equally exciting when the Hyatt Regency SF opened. It was an incredible space in its own right. It was so popular with the public that visiting it seemed like a community experience – very relaxed and enjoyable. Next door, Embarcadero Center was equally captivating with its terraced levels of greenery and even had an interesting new store to visit: Design Research.

    As a result, John Portman’s work has always intrigued me. But as I have become more familiar with his buildings, I have discovered that the details I took for granted in San Francisco are actually part of an all-encompassing and quite idiosyncratic design vocabulary. Especially with the buildings completed in the 1970’s it would seem that an entire design style sprung forth spontaneously: massive and strangely detached forms that crouch over fields of tile mosaics, unusual oval pods that float both on lakes and in the air, stepped portals that seem to command their own presence, wood-ribbed trees and giant yellow umbrellas hovering over guests — and everywhere, large pots of chrysanthemums. The same elements are even detectable in the latest designs.

    Unfortunately, Mr. Portman talks about his work on either the most pragmatic or conceptual levels and nowhere have I found any good discussion about his actual design vocabulary or influences. Perhaps having worked in Mr. Portman’s office, there are some insights you can share. What are those strange portals, massive umbrellas, and other unique forms intended to recall?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello, I am a tech grad and I know that the rendering that you post for Grant Field Proposal, Georgia Tech, is not a portman project, it is my classmate’s work!!! Please take it down!


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