Grey’s Towering Inferno

Grey Advertising fire San Francisco….early 1980’s

Does anyone remember the great “towering inferno” at Grey Advertising on the 27th floor of 50 California Street in San Francisco in the early 1980’s? I was working there at the time as an office administrator but had majored in drawing and painting in college so I was thrilled to be part of the “ad biz” surrounded by creative types. I was first alerted to the fire by my boss who called me at 6 AM on a weekday to tell me there had been a fire on our floor, (Grey’s offices comprised the entire 27th floor at 50 California), so I was to dress casually in jeans and bring a bucket, rubber gloves and a whisk broom if I had one. OK…..My boss had no idea what the damage was….she had not been into the office yet to see. So I boarded BART in the East Bay carrying my bucket, gloves and whisk broom and got off at the Embarcadero Station in San Francisco and ascended the escalator to the street level and walked past La Boulangerie on the corner of California St., (where I didn’t stop for my usual latte and croissant) to our building. As I got closer I saw 4 – 5 fire engines parked around the street, fire hoses going in and out of the building including up the elevator shaft and firemen everywhere. As I entered the building and tried to board an elevator for the 27th floor, I was stopped and questioned by the Fire Captain to whom I explained “I work here. I was told to come into work to help clean up”. I was allowed to proceed, and as I stepped out of the elevator on the 27th floor, the smoky wet smell of burned plastic from melted computers and other toxic materials I couldn’t identify, nearly overcame me. The double doors that were normally open to our lobby area where “GREY” could be seen on the facing wall were shut. I opened the doors and began, at the direction of my direct report, Claudia Ebert, Office Manager and Henry “Hank” McWhinney, General Manager, (who later became President of the San Francisco office in 1987) what was what I recall to be a nearly 6 to 12 month renovation project. It was determined that the fire started in the media department (the “pink ghetto “as it was called) in the office of the VP. She kept a space heater near her desk and apparently it had either been left on or something went wrong with the circuitry. It was fortunate a night janitor discovered the fire soon after it started or all may have been lost. As it was, the Media Dept. was totally destroyed and had to be relocated to temporary offices sub-let from the B of A – a major client at the time. The rest of the office space suffered mostly smoke and water damage- fortunately none of the art work was harmed in the fire. Renovating the office over the next several months was both exciting and exhausting. The “new look” at Grey was sleek and classy employing grey and burgundy tones throughout the office. And new, burnished silver “GREY” signage was installed in the lobby. Though the bucket, rubber gloves and whisk broom I was asked to bring in the morning of the fire were woefully inadequate to even begin to clean up the devastating effects, there is a humorous footnote about the whisk brooms. It was Robert “Bob” Humphrey, then Grey Advertising Western Offices Chairman and CEO, who suggested in his ever up beat demeanor and lickety-split manner of speaking that we all procure whisk brooms and just “whisk a little bit here and there every day” and it would all be back to normal in a jiffy. Seriously? He was also a firm believer in the “solid tie, solid guy” motto. No striped ties for Grey’s A.E.’s……at least not when Bob Humphrey was in town. The fire also inspired the creative types in our office to come up with a new motto: “GREY Advertising…the hottest agency in town”. Black t-shirts were silk screened with the word “GREY” on the front consumed by orange and red flames. They were a “hot item”. Everyone wanted one, even some of our competitors.

Note: some of the other names I recall of people who worked at Grey then are:

Jerry Baker – creative director

Lars – creative director?

Mimi – creative dept. secretary


Gail Rouleau Sherman