Such a strange juxtaposition.

Internationally-acclaimed Atlanta architect and developer John Portman is finally getting his due. Eighteen months ago, the High Museum of Atlanta featured a retrospective of his life’s work in art and architecture. The City of Atlanta has been going back and forth about getting a downtown street named in his honor.

And now a new documentary — “John Portman: A Life of Building” — has been released that places Portman as one of the most important architects of the 20th Century.

But at the same time as Portman is receiving his due, key pieces of his architecture are being destroyed.

Last year, the Portman-designed Antoine Graves Senior Housing High Rise was demolished by the Atlanta Housing Authority.

The historical significance of Antoine Graves is that it served as the proto-type of one Portman’s greatest architectural designs — the Hyatt Regency Atlanta — a 1967 building that transformed the hotel industry by introducing the awe-inspiring 22-story, floor-to-ceiling atrium.

The mind-blowing impact of the Hyatt Regency's atrium complete with ivy (Photo courtesy of Timothy Hursley)

Sadly, the Hyatt Regency today is a bastardization of its former self. Renovation after renovation (including the one currently underway) has altered the marvel that once sparked the world’s imagination in downtown Atlanta.

When the Hyatt Regency opened in 1967, it instantly became one of the popular attractions in Atlanta. The famous blue dome — the now-closed Polaris Restaurant — introduced the revolving restaurant high above Peachtree Street.

The original front of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta (Photo courtesy of John Portman & Associates Archive)

But it was the Hyatt’s unique entrance that created the greatest dramatic effect — also known as the “Jesus” moment.

The entrance of the Hyatt Regency as it looks today (Photo: Maria Saporta)

Portman had designed the Hyatt’s front door as a tunnel that got increasingly narrow until one stepped into the mind-blowing atrium complete with the sparkling-lights on the glass elevators — leading people to either say “Wow” or “Jesus” — even after repeated visits.

Today, that dramatic entrance has been replaced with a large glass entrance complete with a mega-revolving door and a non-descript feel. Gone is all the drama and suspense that used to welcome visitors to the space.

The Hyatt Regency's entrance as it looks today (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Inside, one key alteration is the floor. Portman had designed a beautiful fan-pattern of tiles that provided texture to the space. Now that floor has been replaced with sterile white stone — a high quality finish that is completely disrespectful to the historical integrity of the original vision.

The intricate fan-like floor tile in the original Hyatt Regency (Photo courtesy of Andy Wallace)
The Hyatt Regency's floor as it looks today (Photo by Maria Saporta)

In the documentary, there are countless images that remind us what the space used to be like. The floating bird-cage bar. (That space was turned into escalators going to the ballrooms downstairs). The ivy hanging down the interior floors — bringing nature indoors.

One of my favorite memories was the actual three-story bird-cage that had the most colorful parrots I had ever seen. That was one of the first features to disappear.

The recent screening of the Portman documentary at the Rich Auditorium was followed by a panel discussion that included filmmaker Ben Loeterman, Atlanta architect Mack Scogin and long-time Portman associate, friend and advisor Mickey Steinberg.

The documentary did a commendable job in explaining the impact that Portman has had in modern architecture and the fact that only now is he being recognized for his contributions.

Scogin described Portman’s trademark in the “layering of space and layering of texture” as one of his greatest contributions. “John has innovated and challenged the profession of architecture throughout his career,” Scogin said. “He piqued the imagination and lifted the spirit of millions of people.”

Former New York Times’ architectural critic Paul Goldberger, who is now with the New Yorker and is interviewed in the film, has said that Portman has been “the only architect of his era to create only a series of significant buildings, but a new urban type.”

After the Hyatt Regency opened, Paul Gapp of the Chicago Tribute wrote that Portman was “the most influential living American architect,” and added that “countless other architects have copied him but the music just isn’t the same.”

All that is true. But what is also true — which the documentary barely acknowledges — is that Portman was a controversial figure in the world of architecture and design.

Looking down on the Hyatt's lobby level as it looks today (Photo by Maria Saporta)
Looking down at the Hyatt's busy lobby level in its early days (Photo courtesy of John Portman & Associates Archive)

The American Institute of Architects looked askance at him for his dual role as architect and developer.

But more significantly, Portman has always had an uneasy relationship with the urban environment. Rather than welcoming the street, Portman created a myriad of tunnels so that people could be protected from the city’s streets and natural environment.

The documentary, however, primarily presents a favorable Portman perspective — one that claims that he single-handedly saved downtown Atlanta — a fact that is rightfully open to dispute.

Looking up at the atrium today (Photo by Maria Saporta)
Looking up to multi-layered atrium years ago (Photo courtesy of Michael Portman)

In fact, Portman’s relationship with preservation is also mixed. It was Portman who was responsible for the demolition of several of Atlanta’s landmarks including the Henry Grady Hotel that was built in 1923 and demolished in 1972 to make way for Portman’s Westin Peachtree Plaza hotel.

And yet — as part of history’s irony — now some of Portman’s greatest works are vulnerable to the march of time. Rather than being viewed as classic pieces of architecture that must be preserved as part of the architect’s original vision, they are being dismantled bit by bit — call it demolition through renovation.

A rendering out front of the Hyatt showing how the renovation will look (Photo by Maria Saporta)

It’s hard to imagine that people would “renovate” the great works of architects Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn or Philip Johnson.

But, for whatever reason, Portman’s architectural works have not yet demanded the respect to be preserved. At the same time, the fanciful and multi-dimensional elements of Portman’s designs are not being protected in keeping with his original vision.

And in the case of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, that is just a darn shame.

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news...

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  1. What is a “Jesus” moment in 1967 is not the same thing 44 years later. Though details may be updated to be more economically viable, the essential architecture is the same. Hotels adapt to modern tastes to attract guests or they go under. A locked, dark and empty but architecturally pure hotel does no one any good, least of all the building itself. And yes, even Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson’s works have been altered to maintain their economic viability.

  2. Portman can be credited with creating some amazing interior spaces, but the way he turned a large portion of downtown into a depressing, dark, blank space was criminal. And unfortunately he replicated the formula in other cities. I can’t stand how some people are afraid to admit the damage he did. Perhaps when he passes there will be a more honest discussion.

  3. Sorry but to my untrained eye it seems as if he created the equivalent of a gated community in the burbs or a mall. All the connection is internal. The entrance was uninviting and disconnected from its surrounding area. If anything I guess it’s important because it shows what happens if we go down the path away from connecting buildings with their surroundings. I truly hate that the America’s Mart is one of the boundaries for Centennial Olympic Park.

  4. I remember well the early days of the Hyatt Regency. It was an exciting time, and a different era, but all Atlanta seemed to be in love with the new hotel. It was dramatic, ground-breaking, and awe-inspiring. We were proud of it then, and I would still be proud of it if they had not made all the changes. Some were necessary, but some were not. It’s still a great hotel, though.

  5. Wonderful article, Maria! You write as if you were a trained architect (but being raised by one sort of couts!). I’d be interested in knowing who or what bankrolled the Portman documentary – I would be a lot of Portman associates were involved if not the Great Man his own self. And as for the Hyatt, I hated those old floors, character or not, and the new entrance helps the building relate to the street. Certainly one didn’t find Portman’s original entrance so much as fell into it; and as for the “wow” factor, folks are pretty much over it now — Portman’s done the same thing in so many places around the world that no one thinks it’s very special anymore (except of course the power companies who get paid to cool these mamoth spaces!).

    I also apprecaite your bringing the controversy into your article, because when I look at his body of work over the decades, I see a hack architect with no real appreciation for the humans who must inhabit his edifices. That he basically just repeats the same now tired look over and over and over again in city after city attests to a lack of imagination… or just laziness.

    The destruction of the Grady Hotel was a travesty, one he cannot blame, as other architects would do, on the developer — because he was the developer. But don’t forget the forelorn Francis Hotel at the intersection of Peachtree and Ivy (renamed some decades ago to “Peachtree Center Avenue). It was a jewel of a building, but John wanted it gone because it didn’t fit in with his vision for the SunTrust tower with its moat and well-endowed dancing girls.

    John Portman is much like Ayn Rand’s “Fountainhead”: A triumph of ego over talent. There’s no denying he had talent, but his ego outstrips that by a factor of 1,000. It shows in the “bought-umentary” and even more in his continuing effort to erase our history. First it was through demolition and now it’s by changing Harris Street to honor the Great Man instead. I for one have had enough — if this Sandy Springs resident is so hell-bent on getting his name on a street in Atlanta, may I suggest renaming Peachtree Center Blvd? After all — he got it changed to that in the first place.

  6. While I share in the dislike of both (a) demolition of fine old buildings, and (b) the turning away from the sidewalk with its resulting negative impact on city life, I don’t think it’s quite fair to assign special blame to Portman for this. These mistakes were typical of most of what was built in this country in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s.

    In other words, much of what is good about Portman’s architecture is somewhat distinctive (I can’t think of a building that is entirely distinctive); most of what is wrong with his work is shared by most of the built environment from that period. We will spend another 50 years fixing many of the mistakes from the past 50.

    I’m quite fond of the Hyatt. The Westin is much less successful.

  7. Well, the Portman-haters have certainly showed up…
    John Portman changed the face of Atlanta from sleepy plain-Jane South to dynamic international. There is a lot of green-eyed envy on display, in my opinion, by architects whose body of work stands forgotten and forgetable next to Portman’s efforts. Celebrate the man, Atlanta – he put you on the map.

  8. As others have said, Portman’s hotel work was a definite step forward, unfortunately projects like Peachtree Center downtown are truly a blight on our city. The entire concept was to remove people from the streets by creating walkways and indoor malls. What better way to destroy a city than remove people from the streets.

  9. I think ito be fair we must acknowledge Portman with ambivalence- I like to say he should be credited with both saving and killing our downtown. It is I think most important to consider the urban environment that led to his resopnse. The population had fled to the suburbs, the building stock downtown was aging or being largely replaced by surface parking. Portman saw nothing in the “context”, or what was left of it, worth connecting to. His buildings look like bunkers because that is what they had to be to attract people back into a downtown that was percieved as dangerous and foreign. His grand atria (and the courtyard of Peachtree Center) were a new “public” realm, complete with a complex mix of uses, public art, density, and plantings, because none of those elements existed any longer on the city streets. We so often think of these projects as inhuman and dystopian, but they share a remarkable resemblance to futuristic utopian visions (the bubble-cities of Logan’s Run or the much earlier Shape of Things to Come). Cetrainly the Embarkadero Center in San Francisco is more successful than Peachtree Center, and the behemoth America’s Mart is utterly unredeemable. Basically I think these projects can be credited with reversing the tide of evacuation from downtown. But of course, after decades of revitalization, high-rise infill, investment in police and MARTA and streetscapes, the urban environment has largely been rebuilt. The “bunkers” are black holes on the street, and the functions within suck much-needed vitality from the sidewalk. Two entire streets have been relegated to super-scaled service alleys for blank megastructures.
    The buildings are not beyond improvement- like the Omni center, the Westin was greatly improved by adding transparency to the street- but as always we should expect the renovations to be done with a concerted effort to understand the origiinal, with at least as much care and creativity. Above the circular porte-cochere of the Marriott Marquis there was a strange circular room under a giant glass dome, ringed by a narrow gap that looked down onto the inverted fountain below, connected to corridors by little arched covered bridges. Bizarre, but so unique, and now it is a rat’s warren of characterless corridors.
    Thanks for raising a discussion that is quickly passing us by.

  10. John Portman and the company he has built and sustained over the last 4 decades plus, is a blessing to the communities that he has touched. i have had the pleasure of working with him and his team over the past 30 years and feel honored to be a part of his work. i do though, strongly disagree with the tone of opinion in this article. IMO (sticking to the theme here) it came off as a homework assignment, done last minute, via google search results, with a few big words thrown in.

    HRA is not only a landmark dating back to the blossoming 60’s era of atlanta, but also revolutionary design in the hospitality industry. i feel that the renovations now and in the past have kept the original integrity and enriched it.

    marble entry facade quarried from the original Michelangelo quarry, beautiful!
    salvaged 4″ black walnut hardwood with natural live edges at all the registration and concierge desks, beautiful.
    the list goes on, kudos to all parties involved.

    i’m hoping the trends continue downtown in efforts of revival. the potential is there for so much more!

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