Tucked behind one of the chrome trimmed tables beside The Grey’s open kitchen, John O. “Johno” Morisano cuts an appropriately anachronistic figure. From his horn-rimmed glasses to the checked pattern on his tie to the vibrant blue of his wool blazer, he would have blended right in sitting at this exact table decades ago, when The Grey was simply a Greyhound Station. And with his surroundings harkening back in similar fashion to that post art-deco heyday, it’s easy to feel like maybe you’ve stepped back in time when you meet him.
It’s only when you see Morisano’s designer jeans leading down to a pair of double monk-strap Oxfords and smell the aroma of expertly crafted cuisine that most definitely would not have accompanied a trip to a bus terminal, that the illusion is broken and you realize you are still firmly planted in the present.
But this temporary fit of time travel is to be expected in a place like The Grey. In fact, that’s kind of the idea. “The design challenge we faced with The Grey when we were building it was don’t (mess) up the bus terminal, and to drop a restaurant in that always felt like it was here,” he says.
“It’s easier said than done.”
The building that now houses The Grey will turn 80 this year, built at the height of an art deco movement that is reflected in every bold curve of the soffits and every strip of metallic accent running along the walls. By the time it closed its doors to travelers in 1964, it had been slightly tweaked to post-war sensibilities, imbuing it with an “art modern” style.
It was this style that caught Morisano’s eye, enrapturing him from the moment he stepped through a hole in the wall close to where a roll-up bay door now marks “Gate One” along one wall of the dining room. Photographs along the walls now show the state of disrepair the building had fallen into in the nearly 50 years it sat empty. During that first visit, Morisano was greeted by peeling paint, sagging eaves, loosely scattered piles of debris, and the inevitable results of decades of neglect.
But in that art deco style, in the timelessly elegant way the walls swooped around the open space by the old Gates, the way salmon-flecked terrazzo flooring showed where thousands of passengers had worn down a line leading up to the ticket counter, the way chrome begged to gleam beneath layers of tarnish, he saw potential.
“I came in and it was just like, ‘Bam,’” Morisano says. “It was very decrepit, but I remember thinking this is a really cool building and it used to be something really interesting.” For this New York City media mogul turned venture capitalist and part-time real estate investor, buying the building was the perfect way to give back to his adopted hometown of Savannah. After a year of negotiation, he secured ownership and was ready to transform this downtown eyesore into something amazing. The question then became, what would that something be?
“I was part of a team that did an adaptive reuse in New York of an old Yiddish Vaudeville Theater, where we took it and turned it into a five-screen art house movie theater that ended up being very successful. So this concept of adaptive reuse was not really new to me,” he says.
Ideas included parsing up the space to serve as offices, or building up on it, but his fundamental instinct was to leave this beautiful building intact. From there, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to decide on turning the old Greyhound station into a restaurant. “I went home and told my wife, Carol, that I was going to build a restaurant down at 109 MLK and she said, ‘Oh, okay. So you’re completely crazy.’”