After enduring last year’s bitter, snowy and windy winter, Kaleida Health executives on Monday celebrated a major milestone in the construction of the new John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital, as the highest piece of steel was raised into the air and placed atop the new 12-story structure.
The topping-off ceremony, which harkens back to a centuries-old Scandinavian tradition, marks the overall completion of the steel frame of the new 183-bed hospital, just over a year after crews broke ground on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
It also kicks off the next phase of the $267 million project, which is slated to open in November 2017 at 818 Ellicott St. after a total of more than 34 months of construction. The building will be enclosed over the coming months, at which point work will shift to the interior.
“Fourteen months ago, we were moving some dirt and putting shovels in the ground, and now we’re 20-some months away from this becoming a tremendous reality,” said Kaleida Health CEO Jody Lomeo.
Of course, it hasn’t been easy getting to this point, largely because of weather, said Turner Construction Co. project executive Steve McGlone. Crews had to work through “the worst winter in 100 years in Buffalo,” and also dealt frequently with high winds barreling off Lake Erie.
The tower crane, which has a built-in wind gauge, shut down automatically when the wind hit a certain speed. “This is the windiest corner in Buffalo,” McGlone said. “It’s happened more than we’d like it to happen.”
Also, while the ceremony technically marks the placing of the last beam on top of a new building, there are still a few fill-in pieces that still need to be installed below it, McGlone said.
Even so, officials called it a critical moment, not only for Kaleida and Children’s, but also for the region. The new hospital will “right-size” and replace the aging Children’s Hospital on Bryant Street, which has stood for over 125 years.
“Health care for our children and our mothers is taking a giant step forward today as we celebrate the raising of the last piece of steel,” said Children’s President Allegra Jaros.
“Today, we take another step forward to becoming the very best hospital for children and mothers, not only in our region but in the nation. And while we have created many wonderful memories on the Bryant Street campus over the last 125 years, it’s clear that our future is bright right here on Ellicott Street.”
Jaros said the new hospital is designed to “expedite care to our mothers,” offering access to specialists at Buffalo General Medical Center, the Gates Vascular Institute and Roswell Park Cancer Institute. And it will provide doctors, nurses and specialists with “the most advanced technology and programs,” along with “extensive research and education” through partnerships with the other medical facilities and University at Buffalo.
“Not only will the Oishei Children’s Hospital be the link for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus through its corridors, but it will also link our mothers and children to comprehensive excellence,” she said.
At the same time it will remain one of only 43 stand-alone children’s hospitals in the country, and the only one in New York State. “It’s not our right to be here. It’s our privilege and our honor,” Lomeo said.
Moreover, officials said, it’s already creating tremendous buzz, both locally and among physicians elsewhere, as “a key component and a catalyst of the Buffalo resurgence,” said Dr. Teresa Quattrin, Children’s pediatrician-in-chief.
“Many more physicians are looking to the Oishei Children’s Hospital as a place where their excellence can be demonstrated and where their technical and professional abilities can be enhanced,” said Quattrin, who cited the “enthusiasm of native Western New York physicians who have been practicing far away for many years” and are now considering returning.
Executives were eager to heap praise and gratitude not only on Kaleida’s doctors, nurses and employees, but especially to the donors who contributed $50 million toward the project, led by the John R. Oshei Foundation’s $10 million naming gift.
“This is about Mr. Oishei’s legacy and how young children and the well-being of young children were critical to him and his legacy,” Oishei President Robert Gioia said. “What better way for us to honor his legacy?”
Gioia and Kaleida officials also acknowledged the support of businessman Sal H. Alfiero, who also donated millions of dollars toward Children’s. “If you were to add up all the checks that Sal has given to Children’s Hospital, we would finish second, and there’s no one better to finish second to than Sal,” Gioia said.
The state contributed $35 million for the project, while the rest of the financing comes from a government-insured mortgage, an equipment loan, the Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo Foundation and Kaleida’s funds.
The purpose of the topping-off ceremony, Kaleida spokesman Michael Hughes noted, is to celebrate a “so-far safe construction site.” He also called it “an expression of hope for a secure completion, and a blessing for the building and its future occupants.”
More than 100 people gathered under a tent on the construction site at the corner of Ellicott and Goodrich streets, as representatives of Kaleida, Oishei and Turner signed a long white beam before it was hoisted in the air.
The beam had already been colorfully signed over the past week by “hundreds” of Children’s employees, physicians, patients, and family members, as well as members of the construction team. It also had an American flag fastened to it and a small tree perched on one end to symbolize hope for the new building.
“No, it is not to celebrate Christmas,” Hughes clarified to the crowd. “The greenery symbolizes hope that the building will be everlasting.”