Hotel atriums and architect John Portman

Fans of the hotel atrium can thank architect John Portman and Hyatt Hotels for reintroducing this design element to US hotels. The Hyatt Regency Atlanta opened in 1967 with a 23-story high atrium interior with glass elevators allowing guests to view the enclosed open space while being lifted to the room floor.  On top of the hotel sat a revolving restaurant.

John Portman did not invent the atrium design for hotels. The original Palace Hotel San Francisco from 1875 was an atrium design hotel. That design element was removed from the post earthquake 1909 Palace Hotel that exists today. The Brown Palace in Denver, Colorado built in 1892 is another 19th century atrium design hotel still in use.

Link to Brown Palace atrium lobby photo: http://www.brownpalace.com/popups/photo_tour22.cfm

As a teenager I recall passing through the lobby of the Hyatt Regency San Francisco and being dazzled by the large open space atrium and the metallic sculpture Eclipse. Here is a link to the artistic elements of the 35’ x 35’ Eclipse sculpture: http://www.isama.org/hyperseeing/07/07-01.pdf

Hyatt Regency San Francisco and Eclipse
Hyatt Regency San Francisco and Eclipse

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.

John Portman's Hyatt Regency San Francisco
John Portman's Hyatt Regency San Francisco

Three San Francisco hotels are John Portman designs: Hyatt Regency at the Embarcadero and Le Meridien San Francisco (formerly the Park Hyatt) are part of the mixed use Embarcadero Center near the San Francisco Ferry Building waterfront.

Le Meridien San Francisco exterior view from Embarcadero One
Le Meridien San Francisco exterior view from Embarcadero One

The J.W. Marriott San Francisco (formerly the Pan Pacific and Portman Hotel) is John Portman’s creation just off Union Square behind the St. Francis Hotel.


Another John Portman atrium hotel is now JW Marriott San Francisco
Another John Portman atrium hotel is now JW Marriott San Francisco

So the next time you are admiring the atrium rainforest in an Embassy Suites you may think of John Portman and his influence on hotel design.

Other notable John Portman hotels are the New York Marriott Marquis Times Square, Westin Bonaventure Los Angeles, Westin Peachtree Plaza Atlanta, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, and Renaissance Center, Detroit.


I would love to hear your comments on the architecture of John Portman’s hotels.


1. Portman & Associates Hotel Architecture:  http://www.portmanusa.com/hotel.html

2. John Portman wikipedia  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Portman

3. NYT June 25, 2006 Aric Chin “The Kubla Khan of Hotels”  http://travel.nytimes.com/2006/06/25/travel/25portman.html

4. Karrie Jacobs – I left my heart at the Hyatt Regency  http://www.metropolismag.com/story/20050919/i-left-my-heart-at-the-hyatt-regency



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