Here, at last, I have hit upon a moral reflection commanding universal assent: hotel lobbies should not be hostile environments. This, surely, is a golden precept of civilization: a lobby should not resemble the flight deck of an aircraft carrier during the battle of Midway, or a rain forest, or one of those mazes scientists design to test the average rat's breaking point.
Indications of decadence are rife, but nowhere more so than in modern hotel lobbies. In such lobbies it is possible to suffer vertigo as a result of the architecture and decor, and it is well-nigh impossible to find a quiet place to sit while waiting for the vertigo to pass.
Atlanta's Peach Tree Plaza has a lobby that Lewis and Clark could not have found their way across. Actually, the concept "across" hardly applies. It is a trackless waste in the fourth dimension. Pity the poor traveler who has screwed his courage to the sticking point just to get through Atlanta's new airport, which is about the size of Vermont. Then he is decanted from a cab into the inferno of escalators, elevators, coffee shops, gifte shoppes and counters that is the Peach Tree Plaza's cruel caricature of a lobby. There is, of course, a pond-like body of water -- Walden in everything but charm -- in which you can drown yourself, which you might wish to do.
In Detroit, there are, I'll wager, delegates -- shells of their former selves -- left over from the 1980 Republican Convention, wandering with blank stares and broken spirits along the endless concrete ramps and corridors that fill the cavernous space that should be the lobby of the Renaissance Plaza. The man nominated in Detroit shold base the MX missile in that "lobby." The Russians will never find it.
It is prodigiously sly of hotels to design themselves so that the weary traveler can only sit in a place where money is spent. One such place is a sunken saloon smack in the middle of the "lobby," where drinks are served at 10 a.m. by young ladies dressed not at all the way their mothers recommended that they dress at 10 a.m. Many Hyatt hotels have capacious lobbies, but they are surrounded by tiers of rooms rising 20 or more stories. Being in such a lobby is like being at the bottom of a well, which is agreeable if you are a newt, but not if you're not.
The lobby of the Bonaventure in Los Angeles is like . . . well, suppose the Santa Monica and San Diego freeways intersected near the headwaters of the Amazon River. It is concrete, with green growing things and a monsoon.
I have been brooding about the Lobby Question for many seasons, but a visit to Chicago has moved me to take up my pen in praise of the few remaining proper lobbies. They are scattered like rubies across the Republic -- The Hotel Utah in Salt Lake City comes to mind -- but Chicago has three. The Drake is venerable. The Park Hyatt is distressingly new and shiny, but the lobby has a harpsichord, so all is forgiven. But the essence of lobbiness is in the Loop, in the old Palmer House.
It has large, stately potted plants. No nonsense here about foliage suspended from wires, making the place look like an explosion in a florist's shop. The lobby is surounded by balconies and ornamented by high brass light stands and, of course, a legible clock with Roman numerals. There are chairs and couches so deep that you seem to settle for several minutes before coming to rest.
High above, the ceiling is a wonderful protest of romance against the everydayness of life. There are paintings of ladies of almost Rubenesque dimensions. (They reflect the taste of a bygone era, before Richard Simmons and best- sellers titled "Thin Thighs in Thirty Days.") The ladies are disporting themselves with gentlemen of vaguely Athenian aspect. All in all, the Palmer House lobby is like the Sistine Chapel without the chapel's infernal roar of tourists' cameras clicking.
I know that the Lobby Crisis is nothing compared to the wrestling match between Paul Volcker and M1. I know we are not put on Earth for pleasure alone, and that we are naught but bubbles on the surface of Eternity. But the modern hotel lobby, with its insensate pursuit of perfect discomfort, is intolerable.
For years Detroit made cars that looked like sharks or spaceships -- anything but cars. And the cars did everything well -- inspired, entertained, expressed their owners' primal urges -- everything, that is, except get people to and fro with minimal expense and risk. Detroit has recently, and in the nick of time, remembered: as clipper ships showed, what is functional can be beautiful. Let the designers of hotel lobbies remember that, or be sentenced to live in what they design.