Midlife makeovers

By Danny King
Hyatt Regency Atlanta Lobby SculptureThe climactic scene in the 1981 thriller "Sharky's Machine" features the protagonist, played by Burt Reynolds, shooting the bad guy in a 16th-floor room at the architecturally iconic Hyatt Regency Atlanta, at which point the bad guy crashes through a plate-glass window and plummets more than 200 feet to his death.

More than 30 years later, owners of such architecturally dramatic lodging establishments are spending millions of dollars updating these period pieces, ratcheting up the hotels' amenities and levels of comfort to match their legendary theatrics.

These 1960s and 1970s hotels are a far cry from the larger, stately "grand dame" hotels that opened across the country during the early part of the 20th century, such as New York's Plaza Hotel and San Diego's Hotel del Coronado. They also provide a twist on the boxy, clean-lined mid-century properties of the jet-set, Rat Pack era by embracing circular forms and all-glass exteriors.

A number of those 1960s and 1970s hotels are suddenly receiving some TLC -- and some much-needed renovation dollars -- as lodging operators look to capitalize on the combination of resurgent demand, prime real estate and the buildings' architectural pedigrees.

On the upscale side, a handful of the properties were designed and developed by John Portman, the legendary architect who gave birth to the "atrium hotel" concept, complete with massive lobby sculptures and glass elevators.

At the more midscale level, a few cylinder-shaped "beer can" hotels that started their lives as Holiday Inns in the late '60s and early '70s are also getting new life.

Fittingly, the most expensive of these upgrades is being undertaken on the most historical of the bunch: the original Atrium Tower of the aforementioned Hyatt Regency Atlanta. The designing of this 735-room hotel started in 1963, and it was completed four years later. It was the first to feature a lobby-to-roof central atrium with all of the rooms accessed via balconies that overlook a central lounge.

Westin Peachtree Plaza Atlanta"Portman was trying to get away from having these giant, dead-end corridors," said Steve Galbreath, Dallas-based vice president with architecture firm RTKL and a member of the American Institute of Architects. "You don't have to get off the elevator and walk 50 rooms without seeing windows. The elevator ride alone is fun. It was always a journey to your room."

Hyatt Hotels, which owns the Hyatt Regency in addition to managing it, invested $65 million in recently completed improvements that range from custom-made walnut furnishings to carpeting with a design inspired by the central lobby's massive metal sculpture.

"We wanted to respect Portman as much as possible," said Sara Duffy, senior interior designer with New York-based architecture firm Stonehill & Taylor, which handled the redesign. "He had a strong commitment to sculpture and art. We've tried to put a contemporary spin on it."

Portman, whose firm's representatives declined to be interviewed for this report, was also the builder of two other recently renovated properties: Atlanta's Westin Peachtree and the 1,354-room Westin Bonaventure, Los Angeles' largest hotel. The Westin Bonaventure, whose futuristic, multicylinder design was completed in 1976 and was featured in such period entertainment as the TV show "Starsky & Hutch," finished its $35 million worth of upgrades in October 2011.

As for the Westin Peachtree (originally the Peachtree Plaza), that 73-story structure, which was the Western Hemisphere's tallest hotel when it opened in 1976, is in the process of getting $45 million worth of upgrades to its 1,073 rooms.

The hotel is one of just 30 properties owned by Starwood Resorts & Hotels, which manages or franchises more than 570 properties in North America. Its guestrooms have been updated with a new layout and upgraded bathroom furnishings, while the public space is a work in progress.

"These hotels continue to be so iconic," said Erin Hoover, vice president of global brand design for Starwood's Westin and Sheraton brands. "But you do want people to feel like they're in a current space. You don't want people to feel like they're walking into a time capsule."

That's the same approach Starwood has tried to take with a couple of former Holiday Inn properties that were among about two dozen cylindrical ("beer can") hotels developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Following up on a 2005 effort by San Francisco-based boutique hotelier Joie de Vivre to go slightly upscale with a West Los Angeles version that was relaunched as the Hotel Angeleno (the hotel went independent this past June), Starwood this year upgraded and reflagged two such properties in San Diego and Tallahassee, Fla., under the Four Points by Sheraton badge.

In fact, contrary to the gas-guzzling, environmentally carefree image of the 1970s, the 164-room Four Points in Tallahassee, which was actually built in 1969, has added enough energy- and water-saving components for Starwood to attempt to get the property to be the chain's first to be added by the U.S. Green Building Council to its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification program.

Westin Bonaventure Los AngelesRegardless, the odd-shaped buildings, both of which are in their respective cities' downtowns, are a great way to draw attention to what Starwood is targeting as one of its growing brands, said Brian McGuinness, senior vice president for Starwood's specialty select brands.

"We do need to modernize the physical layout," McGuinness said. "But the simplicity of these forms is really brilliant, and we felt it was a really good match for the brand." While asserting that there were currently no further plans to add more cylindrical Holiday Inns to the brand, he observed, "It's essentially a free billboard for us."

Hyatt, Starwood and the owners of the old Holiday Inns are among hoteliers that have been forced to rethink these older, if not yet classic, properties, as new hotel supply is at a virtual standstill and lodging financing, especially for larger properties, remains a challenge.

Despite U.S. lodging demand having been on a steady upswing during the past three years, the number of U.S. hotels has increased just 3.6% since 2009, to about 52,300 properties, while room count is up only 2.8%, to about 4.9 million, according to Smith Travel Research.

"You can get a $20 million loan to do a Hilton Garden Inn or Marriott Courtyard or Holiday Inn Express," said Galbreath, whose firm has designed such properties as the JW Marriott Marquis Miami and the SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills. "For 300- to 500-key, full-service hotels, those loans have to be done conventionally, and the markets aren't ready to loan on them yet."

But while getting renovation funding might be easier than securing newbuild dollars, updating these middle-aged properties to appeal to the contemporary guest is no easy task; it typically involves far more than ripping out red shag carpeting (which actually was originally used in the Hyatt Regency Atlanta).

Hyatt Regency Atlanta Renovated GuestroomFor instance, the Portman hotels and the old Holiday Inns both share circular floor plates with wedge-shaped rooms and vexing floorplans. Additionally, the hotels' bathrooms were typically sized for their time but are cramped by today's standards.

Hoover said Starwood addressed some of those issues with the Westin Peachtree by moving the bed headboard from the outer-facing wall to one of the side walls as well as by using larger tile, lighter colors and creative mirroring to make the bathrooms appear bigger.

"It was nice that you were looking out the window [from the beds], but the rest of the furniture didn't lay out so nicely," Hoover said, adding that the Portman hotels typically have ceilings that are 8 feet, 6 inches high, about 6 inches taller than what's typical in hotels today and which further dramatize the effect of the glass exteriors. "We ended up flipping the headboard to one of the demising walls, and that solved all of our problems. It felt that much more spacious."

Even trickier are the lobby spaces. Their vastness, sculptures and, in some cases, water features created a stunning visual backdrop but now run counter to the more recent efforts within the lodging industry to make public spaces more intimate, informal and appropriate for those guests looking to multitask.

"They were special-occasion spaces," Hoover said. "That kind of blended-space concept is obviously not what John Portman was designing those spaces for."

The architects addressed some of those issues with components such as varied lighting for different parts of the lobby, and movable and stationary partitions that break up the large space into more manageable zones.

Still, the renovations include many visual cues to both the original designs and the era in which they were created.

Four Points Sheraton San Diego DowntownThe circular Four Points properties' public areas include recycled glass and metal framing that harkens back to what McGuinness calls "that machine aesthetic," while both Hoover and Stonehill & Taylor's Duffy said the Atlanta hotels are bringing back the interior "vertical garden" components that were part of the original designs.

For instance, the Hyatt Regency includes a carpeting pattern with shapes that reference the lobby sculpture as well as colorful pop-art pieces and midcentury-inspired lounge chairs, Duffy said.

"As goofy as some of these elements are in the John Portman spaces, people have a real connection to them," Hoover said in arguing for updating these 35- to 45-year-old properties as opposed to replacing them.

"You can make a case that some of them are impractical," Duffy said. "But from a sustainable standpoint, I don't think that [replacing them] would be the best decision. And there'd be a whole piece of the city you'd take away."

Galbreath observed: "You have to embrace what it is. When you stay at the [89-year-old Los Angeles] Biltmore, you have to know that your room wasn't designed 10 years ago, and it's going to be quirky."

In fact, he argued that the massive lobby spaces, sculptures and chandeliers should be celebrated.

"These hotels aren't historic yet," he said. "But they're going to be."

Follow Danny King on Twitter @dktravelweekly. 
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