Clift Hotel

Cathy Morrison

I was working as Purchasing Manager at the [then] Four Seasons Clift Hotel at 495 Geary. The Clift was built in 1913, allegedly the first “skyscraper” built after the quake of ’06. Naturally early skyscraper construction did not inspire much confidence in me, so when I first saw my “office” at the hotel – in the basement, next to the dumpster – I laughingly told my friends, “If there’s an earthquake, you’ll be digging me out with a pickaxe.”

The day was bright, humid and unseasonably warm. I was happily anticipating the Giants-A’s game that night. Preparing to leave work, suddenly the building shook violently. I ran to my doorway and encountered the two women who worked in Human Resources. The three of us hugged each other around a pole or column in the doorway. We could hear pipes clanging and the building moving. The shaking stopped – and then the lights went out.

We were just starting to breathe a sigh of relief when, from the deep basement of the hotel (domain of the housekeeping, laundry, and mechanical departments) emerged our Chief Engineer, who had a flashlight. He led us upstairs to the lobby, towards sunlight.

Several large plate glass windows were shattered. Many of the guests were out because the Clift was full of celebrities who’d arrived for the baseball game. Some that I can recall were sportscaster Al Michaels and actor Timothy Busfield. The hotel General Manager, Paul Pusateri, decreed that every guest present could have free champagne. The Room Service crew put flutes on round silver trays and graciously offered champagne to flustered visitors. The kitchen began to make sandwiches. Remember, it is unsafe to cook with gas after an earthquake!

The entire downtown, including the area in which the Clift is located, had no electricity. However, telephones were working. The Chief Engineer called his wife in Petaluma and she bought a huge supply of flashlights and batteries and drove them down to the hotel. When it began to get dark, as guests returned, everyone on hand was called into service to walk guests up the stairs with a flashlight. There were candles and tealights in the public areas on the main level, but no candles were allowed up in guest rooms.

We had strategy sessions to plan for food and guest services. The cooks were able to use Sterno to prepare very simple dishes. The freezer was still holding its temperature well, and we started to use as much as possible from the refrigerators.

The next morning, I planted myself at the food storeroom since I figured that neither of my employees would come to work. It was a huge surprise when the produce delivery man came around the corner! Their warehouse was in a part of The City that wasn’t impacted seriously. So the guests got lovely strawberries and fresh salad the day after the quake.

Power was out for three days, impacting cooking, lighting, elevators, and the water pump on the roof. Guests were asked neither to shower nor to flush unless necessary. Management staff was asked to stay overnight. I ended up staying at the hotel for two nights, because I lived in Berkeley and it was impossible to get home. On the third day, we were released from duties at the hotel and a friend with a car drove me home via Marin County and Highway 37.

Mr. Pusateri, our GM, was very appreciative of the way the management staff pulled together in the aftermath of the earthquake. Virtually everyone stayed at the hotel and worked 12-18 hours a day to keep the guests safe, happy, and comfortable. He treated us to a fabulous party sometime after. We were served Dom Perignon and everyone was gifted with an engraved MontBlanc Rollerball pen, as well as a framed certificate of gratitude from Isadore Sharp, the President of Four Seasons Hotels. I’ve lost touch with my Four Seasons friends, but I will never forget the October 1989 earthquake. The certificate is one of my prized possessions.