Structure of the Week: The Hyatt
At night, the blue Polaris restaurant atop the Hyatt glows like a flying saucer, seeming to hover between the towers of Peachtree Center. Of course, the Polaris was even more dramatic back when Regency Hyatt House Hotel opened in 1967. The Hyatt was the highest thing on the skyline; in nighttime shots of that era it looks as though aliens are guiding the Polaris in for a landing 312 feet above Peachtree Street.
However, it’s not the groovy blue rooftop disc that earns the Hyatt architectural acclaim as “the world’s first modern hotel.” Rather, the distinction is due to the method used to construct its interior. The first atrium hotel built since World War II, the Hyatt had what would become architect John Portman's signature: a soaring open interior. Portman’s predilection for extravagant hotel lobbies — the Hyatt’s includes a seventy-five foot fountain and gardens that hang Babylon-like from its interior balconies — has earned him the moniker “Kublai Khan of hotels.”
Previewing the Hyatt before its 1967 opening, the New York Times’ Sherman Davis, apparently unwilling to settle on just one simile, compared the hotel's glassed-in amenities to: the historic gallerias of Milan; taxidermied pheasants under glass domes; collectible baseballs perserved in cases; the old dome of Penn Station; and the Houston Astrodome. Davis was particularly smitten with the elevators, which inspired him to evoke yet another comparison:
“Zooming up in them, particularly on a non-stop ride to the top, gives one the feeling, at least the first time around, that he is an astronaut soaring up a gantry at Cape Kennedy, if not already in the first stage after blast off.”
The elevators, custom designed by Otis and, at $35,000 apiece the most expensive in the world at the time of the hotel’s debut, had not lost their appeal three years later when Muhammad Ali staged his comeback in Atlanta. A who’s who of glitterati (Diana Ross! Sidney Poitier! Otis Redding!) and a fur-glad gaggle of pimps and street basketball stars (Pee Wee Kirkland!) descended on the city. The Hyatt became the central gathering spot for everyone in the days leading up to the match. Three decades later, boxing historian Bert Sugar recalled the scene for Atlanta magazine:
“It was un-f-ing believable. They had these see-through glass elevators that rose from the lobby. I remember watching when Ali was ascending, and they were cheering him. It was some scene from a sci-fi movie: The god was rising and people were cheering.”
Today the Hyatt gets a sci-fi treatment of a different sort: It’s the registration center for the annual DragonCon convergence of costume-glad fans. There’s something appropriate about a platoon of fake Star Wars storm troopers marching into the building with a spaceship hovering above it.
The cover of Atlanta magazine from August 1967, the month the Hyatt opened.
The Hyatt elevators were featured in the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce’s “Forward Atlanta” ad campaign.