By Maria Saporta
Architect John Portman designed a hotel that changed Atlanta’s skyline and catapulted the Hyatt hotel chain to a worldwide brand.
The Hyatt Regency Atlanta is now returning the favor. It has placed a plaque in honor of the Atlanta architect and developer in the lobby of the iconic 1967 hotel.
In celebration of Portman and the placement of the plaque, the Hyatt threw a surprise party on Feb. 13 for Portman and invited his family, friends and close associates who have seen a city grow up around the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.
Mickey Steinberg, who has worked with Portman “off and on” since 1961, remembered the Herculean task to get the building built.
At the time, big hotels were out of fashion with the industry favoring auto-centric motels. But Portman knew that his burgeoning market and convention center needed a close-by hotel.
But Portman didn’t want to build just any hotel. Instead he wanted to create an interior explosion — a high rise atrium — guaranteed to provide visitors with an experience they couldn’t easily forget. Portman already had designed a building with an atrium — the Antoine Graves Senior Housing High Rise — (a prototype of the Hyatt) that gave residents a sense of having a backdoor porch overlooking a central space.
Unfortunately an atrium hotel didn’t conform to building codes. Then lenders had a hard time financing a hotel that had so much empty space instead of paying rooms. And then Portman, who approached every major hotel chain in the country, was unable to find any company willing to make it party of its brand.
“John Portman is a unique person,” Steinberg said. “He not only designed the building, but he overcame each obstacle.”
While the hotel was under construction, Jack Pritzker of Chicago approached Portman. Pritzker had three small Hyatt motels, but he saw the potential behind Portman’s new design. And that was the beginning of Hyatt becoming one of the best known hotel chains in the world.
“It changed the concept of what a hotel would be,” Steinberg said. “Atriums are an accepted part of the building code.”
In turn, the Hyatt Regency also helped define the Portman organization, according to A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, who spent decades working for the Portman Cos.
The Hyatt, with its revolving roof-top restaurant — the Polaris — and its distinctive blue dome, became a trademark for the city.
The most poignant comments of the evening came from former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, one of Portman’s closest friends.
“I guess all of us mayors get a lot of credit for making this a great city,” Young said. “There’s nobody who deserves the credit for the creation of modern Atlanta than John Portman.”
Young said that Portman had actually reshaped downtown Atlanta, developing hotels, office buildings and trade marts on a total of 17 downtown blocks.
“They didn’t even let him into Tech High,” Young said. “He had to go to the Navy and get accepted to the Naval Academy to get into Georgia Tech.”
Young went on to describe how Portman’s designs have adorned cities around the globe.
“John, you have had a real hand in making this world go round,” Young said. ”Thank God you had the world go round from Atlanta.”
Then Young said one of Atlanta’s greatest missed opportunities was during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
“Why didn’t we get John to design the Olympic flame,” Young said. “What we did was an embarrassment.”
When it was finally his turn to speak, Portman described his life and career as an “adventure.”
During the 1960s, “we were all filled with enthusiasm,” Portman recalled. “We can get it done.”
Thinking back to when he first started designing the Hyatt in the mid-1960s, Portman was just 39.
“Doing this and being here at 88 and talking to you tonight, that’s pretty good,” Portman said. And then looking to his wife Jan, he added: “We have been married 68 years, and we look forward to another 68.”