Encore for an Icon

They were the talk of the hospitality world back in the late 1960s and early ‘70s — those massive, soaring atrium hotels that awarded Hyatt instant cachet and their creator, John Portman, a unique architectural reputation.

But over the years, what was once cool turned cold. What was once the center of all hot and happening in the hotel is now dismissed as dull and flat, a dark and dreary void.

What happened?

“These were amazing properties in the ‘70s but they sort of lost their way,” suggests Larry Traxler, Hyatt Hotels' vice president of architecture and design. “I think the atrium became dated because it lost its life. When Portman created this prototype back in the late ‘60s, the thing that gave it life wasn't the large open center but the four to five restaurants around the perimeter and a bustling lobby check in. It was the center, the hub, the heart of the hotel.”

But over time, explains Traxler, competition from outside restaurants got tougher. One hotel restaurant would close and management, in an effort to maximize revenue, might turn the empty spot into meeting space and then perhaps another restaurant would shut its doors and that space became storage. “After a while, this atrium void was surrounded by a bunch of dark, dead space. It just sapped the energy of that atrium.”

Still, the atrium has proven appeal, even today, argues Traxler. “I believe there's tons of potential in these hotels and the perfect example is what's happening internationally. Our Grand Hyatt in Shanghai has a 60-story atrium, and after five years it's still one of the biggest draws in the city.”

The challenge and opportunity for Hyatt now is to “breathe life back into the atrium,” says Traxler. And the renovation of the Hyatt Regency O'Hare in Rosemont, IL will serve as the prototype for the company's stable of atrium properties all over the world. Atlanta is next on the list, reports Traxler, and then San Antonio, TX. “We're trying to develop a formula for this renovation. How do we give it some human scale? How do we take what was a huge magnet when it first opened and now has become dated and drab and recreate that energy that used to exist?”

HIGH HOPES FOR O'HARE

The Hyatt Regency O'Hare is on a fast track this winter for a $60-million facelift of all its public spaces. Opened in 1971, the hotel is one of the world's largest convention properties. It's just minutes from O'Hare International Airport with 1,100 guestrooms and 110,000 square feet of meeting space. The property closed its doors to guests Dec. 10 to begin its transformation, with a reopening scheduled for early April.

The renovation will bring dramatic changes to the public spaces and conference center wing, adding cutting-edge design elements and flexible meeting space to accommodate smaller high-end meetings and large-scale events. That, and a host of new amenities, should encourage social interaction within a softer, more intimate atmosphere. Among those additions is a new lobby-level restaurant with an open-air exhibition kitchen as its centerpiece and a separate lobby-level bar.

Leading the charge is TVS Interiors, an architecture and interior design firm based in Atlanta. “The original John Portman design of the Hyatt Regency O'Hare was revolutionary,” says Liz Neiswander, AIA, principal of TVS. “It was important to respect the dynamic elements of his original design, but at the same time, not be afraid to make progressive changes both functionally and aesthetically.

“The atrium was the most challenging space,” continues Neiswander. “We wanted to make sure that any new elements that were introduced worked at a grand scale, but also had a more human scale. We also wanted to activate the atrium as much as possible and give guests chances to occupy it in a variety of ways.”

RUNNING WITH THE UPSTARTS

The highly competitive Rosemont market counts close to 6,000 hotel rooms, all vying for a bigger slice of the business and corporate meetings pie. John Wallis, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Hyatt Hotels, has a realistic take on the Hyatt Regency O'Hare's place among the competition. “This Portman hotel, built a generation ago, has survived incredibly well surrounded by younger upstarts — the Westin, the Marriott with its recent renovation and the new Renaissance hotel in nearby Schaumburg. We have a wonderful history here and what we want to do is give the hotel another 30 years of life and change the way the hotel will be perceived both by the customer and our competitors.”

Wallis says the hotel has “performed well for what it is, which is a big box. While the guestrooms over time have been renovated, the hotel overall hasn't kept pace — it's never been reconceptualized.”

Wallis hopes the renovation will allow the hotel to compete not just for large convention business, but for smaller meetings as well. “We're going to take out the pool and create a conference center that's pretty much self-contained within the hotel,” he notes.

RESPECTING DESIGNERS

Both Wallis and Traxler are working closely with TVS to realize the transformation. TVS has worked with Hyatt for the past 30 years on various projects. It's the architect for the 428-room Hyatt Regency Trinidad, which is under construction and slated to open at the end of the year, and it's working on the interior design of Chicago's 800-room McCormick Place Hyatt. Still, it competed with two other firms for the O'Hare commission. “The scheme we developed not only focused on aesthetic upgrades to the building, but also addressed some of the functional issues,” says TVS's Neiswander.

Hyatt is a design-forward company, claims Traxler, and management encourages creativity. “In the past I've worked with most of the major hotel operators here and abroad and I believe Hyatt gives designers the most flexibility and leeway in envisioning their designs.”

Hyatt's Wallis echoes that. “I'm a great believer that you either do what the designer says or you don't pay them. Yes, you have cost engineering on a project but you have to make sure that you tell the designer again and again and again ‘don't let us take away the integrity of your design.’ We are the hoteliers, they are the designers. The best way we can make things work in all our renovations and repositions going forward is to allow the imagination of the design team to be integrated with the operations and functions of the hotel.

“This is an important statement for the Hyatt brand, saying we will continue to evolve our product, make it as state-of-the-art as possible to allow all our hotels to compete on a level playing field in the market,” says Wallis.

“It's about respecting the architecture, respecting Portman's vision but taking a 1960s design and taking it to 2010.”

Stay tuned for Part 2 of LH's design notebook: The Plan.

Editor's note: In this four-part series, we follow the large-scale renovation of an iconic 1970s hotel, the Hyatt Regency O'Hare. We examine the journey from conception and design plans through construction and installation. We'll talk to the hotel's managers and the designers about the many choices and challenges that arise during the process. First up this month: the project.

THE BIG IDEAS

The Project: Hyatt Regency O'Hare, Rosemont, IL

Owner: Hyatt Hotels Corp.

Scheduled Completion Date: spring 2007

Projected Cost: $60 million

Architect and Interior Designer: TVS, Atlanta, GA

General Contractor: Power Construction, Chicago

Guestrooms/Suites: 1,000 guestrooms and 42 suites

Meeting Space: 110,000 square feet of meeting space

Amenities: Hotel is connected by skywalk to the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center; automated Guest Service kiosks for easy check-in/out; complimentary full health club with locker rooms and saunas

Design Do's and Don'ts

Hotel guestroom design, for the most part, just gets better. I love today's carefully considered amenities, easy-to-use technology, clean lines and touches of whimsy. But bad design in some form will always be with us. I abhor clutter, poor lighting and lack of bathroom counter space. Here's a list of some current design yeahs and nays:

Hooray for…

  • Casters on furnishings. It's great being able to maneuver a desk or table for work or better TV viewing.

  • Padded headboards

  • Flexible wall-mounted bedside lighting

  • Big magnified makeup mirrors

  • Roomy bathroom countertops

  • Nightlights

  • Stainless-steel coffee carafes (it's time to nix the fragile glass pots)

  • Big-button, easy-use clock radios

  • Framed photography that conveys a sense of place

  • Full-length dressing area mirrors

Lose the…

  • Bed scarves. Do they serve a purpose?

  • Superfluous pillows and bolsters. Like the bed scarves, they usually end up on the floor.

  • Silly graphics. What's with this trend towards cutesy contrived sayings such as “wash” “think” and “eat” “relax” (plastered on soap wrappers, pencils, food covers, pillows)?

  • Mountains of promotional literature. Pamphlets and table tents spread around the room conveys cheap and cluttered.

  • Dusty and dated silk flower arrangements

  • Bulky armoires and tubby tube tvs

  • Low-to-the-floor platform beds

  • Pedestal bathroom sinks — pretty but pretty useless. No place to store one's stuff.

  • Hair dryers hidden in storage bags — I like mine mounted on the wall within easy view and reach.

Those are a few of my faves and pet peeves. What design elements do you applaud and/or boo?
Patricia Sheehan

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