Remembering a Giant of Hotel Design

The Atrium inside the Atlanta Marriott Marquis

Atlanta Marriott Marquis by John Portman // Photo: Wikipedia Creative Commons

When John Portman, the architect and developer, died at the end of last year, it was in many ways the end of an era of flamboyance in urban hotel design. Starting in the 1960s and through the 1970s and into the 1980s, Portman’s “big box” properties in Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and other cities were famous for their soaring atriums, cantilevered balconies, glass elevators, sweeping interiors and, last but hardly least, their revolving rooftop restaurants that offered stunning 360-degree views along with dinner.

In many cases, Portman hotels were located in areas of cities that had fallen into disrepair, were deserted at night and no longer safe. Hotels like the 1,949-room Marriott Marquis in New York’s rundown Times Square had a transformative effect, helping to gentrify an entire neighborhood. Today, more than 30 years later, smaller, more modest hotels thrive in such surrounding submarkets now known as Times Square South, West Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen/Clinton thanks, in part, to the success of Portman’s Marriott Marquis.

Styles fall out of fashion over time, of course, and today no one is building hotels like Portman did, with their soaring atriums and revolving restaurants. At the end of the day, they’re just not practical, considering their extravagant use of space and exorbitant consumption of energy.

What hotel owners, developers and managers shouldn’t lose sight of, however, is that sense of anticipation and wonder that guests feel the first time they step into a Portman hotel. In some form or other, no matter how modest, hotels that can create such a sense of excitement are well on their way to succeeding.

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