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.… 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