DALLAS – Wasn't that long ago you got a crick in your neck every time a new building opened.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, real estate developers' favorite trick was pulling an atrium out of the inside of buildings.
Stepping into a hotel or even the most pedestrian suburban office building resulted in an instant case of look-ups to see all the open space overhead.
Developers tried to out-atrium one another with ever-more-lofty spaces inside new projects.
Even two-story freeway office buildings got the atrium treatment. Builders would put mirrors on the ceilings to make the lobby look even taller.
Some of the grandest atriums in Dallas are in downtown's Hyatt Regency and the Hilton Anatole.
The World Trade Center across the street was at one point enlarged to make the atrium even taller.
You can thank the great Atlanta architect John Portman for kicking off the atrium binge.
His buildings at home and across the country took atriums to new heights and fueled the competition to see who could come up with more cavernous spaces inside buildings.
Dallas' legendary developer Trammell Crow used to argue that he had the first modern atrium at his 1958 Trade Mart building. Crow landscaped the inside of the four-story building with trees and released dozens of parakeets to fly through the wholesale center.
But it was Portman who made the atrium a development staple starting with his grand hotels in Atlanta and San Francisco, ensuring that they would be copied around the world.
Now, architects and designers who've been charged with renovating these old buildings are trying to figure out what to do with all that wasted space.
"There are so many of them, and it's a big challenge," said Barry Maners with Dallas-based design firm Entos. "Back in the '70s and '80s, every building had to have that big volume of space.
"The lobbies are way bigger than anyone does these days."
Most of the atriums had lush tropical foliage, fountains and acres of brick and stone pavers.
At the Hyatt Regency atrium downtown, planter boxes once lined all the balconies, with vines hanging down.
Keeping all that indoor jungle alive proved a headache for building owners.
"In the '70s, the idea was to bring the outdoors in," Maners said. "We are using artificial plants now in some cases."
Some of the old atriums are being repurposed as tenant lounges with seating areas and coffee bars.
"We did a design where we added a little building in the atrium on the first floor to fill up that space," Maners said. "It was going to be retail or a little sandwich shop."
Closing the vacant areas in with rentable floor space usually isn't an option because of engineering challenges and high costs.
"It's so difficult to cost-effectively renovate those buildings," he said.