Carpenters, electricians and wiring and furniture installers moved tools and buckets swiftly though the four-story office building at Franklin and West Eagle streets this month.
"Excuse me," repeated a steady stream of passing workers trying to squeeze by on a historic staircase that may have once supported the feet of U.S. presidents more than 150 years ago.
Welcome to the soon-to-be-renamed Lincoln Building. The site, which once served as a school and historic worship space, is being transformed into a new $5.4 million hub for Erie County's fight against Covid-19.
The county's epidemiology team, which includes Covid-19 case investigators and call takers, is slated to move into the renovated building during the first week of January.
"We've got them scattered all across the county right now," said County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. "It's not really a workable solution. I could have rented more space across the county, when we really just wanted to bring them together."
The 1833 downtown Buffalo building, better known as the Ticor Building, is located across the street from the Rath County Office Building. It is considered the oldest known building still standing in the heart of downtown, according to a feasibility study by Watts Architecture and Engineering.
The county bought the building for nearly $1.4 million in 2001, before the county's fiscal crisis. Former County Executive Joel Giambra bought it from a campaign contributor and anticipated its use for expanded office space.
Some legislators complained at the time that the county overpaid for the "huge pile." Giambra said he hoped to eventually sell the building to the state, but that never happened. Since then, the 28,000-square-foot building has been used for document storage, some training and as temporary office space for the emergency management of the October Surprise snowstorm in 2006.
But the money for a proper renovation never materialized.
"It felt like an old strip mall that had been abandoned," said Public Works Commissioner William Geary.
Now, millions in federal stimulus money provided to the county for Covid-19 response is being spent to overhaul the building. Contractors are putting finishing touches on climate control systems and new furniture and floor plans that meet social distancing requirements.
Poloncarz said it makes the most sense to redirect money into a building already owned by the county than to consider renting more space .
The first and second floors will serve as the home base for county contract tracers and call takers who answer the county's Covid-19 hotline, Geary said. Roughly 40 employees would be housed on each floor.
The major renovation includes the restoration of the few historic features that have survived fire, water and smoke damage, and correcting misguided attempts to modernize the building.
"Our biggest challenge for this building was taking an 1833 building and making it become compliant with 2020 code, and along the way, uncovering everything that we did," said county senior project manager Kristofer Straus.
This is the kind of undertaking the county would have been hard-pressed to do until $160 million in federal CARES Act funding to cope with the pandemic was made available to Erie County this year. Once the building is complete, contact tracers and Covid-19 hotline call takers now spread out over three buildings will have a more centralized base of operation.
Some employees will do their work from this building, while others will have the opportunity to work remotely, county officials said. The first county employees are expected to begin occupying the new space next week.
The Ticor Building originally served as home to the First Unitarian Church. John Quincy Adams attended a service there in 1843, at the invitation of church member Millard Fillmore, who would become president seven years later. Abraham Lincoln, for whom the building is being renamed, received the same invitation from Fillmore and attended a service there in 1861.
When first built, it was a stately, two-story church structure constructed by Benjamin Rathbun. Rathbun was the biggest builder in Buffalo during the 1830s, erecting everything from homes to hotels.
He employed more than 2,000 people and built more than 100 structures before his empire disintegrated when Rathbun was convicted on forgery charges, according to local and family historians.
Despite that record of construction, the Ticor Building now under renovation is the last remaining downtown structure known to have been built by him.
Aside from the main church, a school occupied the basement in the early years. After the Unitarian church moved out in 1880, the building was enlarged with two additional floors. The building was later occupied by an art gallery and an architecture firm.
But it is best known as being home to a title company that first occupied the building in 1886 as Buffalo Abstract and Title, and later became Ticor Title and Guarantee Company. That company continued to operate there until 2000.
That was a good thing, said county officials, because continued occupancy is the only thing that prevented the historic structure from falling into ruin.
The current building exterior doesn't look much different than it used to, except for the scaffolding. But the noisy interior now boasts a bright, professional look and smells like new carpeting.
Since June, contractors have had to overhaul wiring and cables, replace the roof and gutters, add a basement generator and install a new fire suppression system. They also tore out two drop ceilings — one layered below another — raised the room heights and reinstalled a scalloped ceiling on the third floor.
The fourth floor, which remains unfinished, will eventually be completed with county dollars, Geary said. More exterior work also remains to be done.
As a new health and safety precaution, individual, self-contained heating and cooling systems have been installed for each floor, said Straus and Geary. New furniture is also being placed to guarantee proper social distancing and barriers between desks for employees working in the space.
The county has worked with the state's Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to protect and restore its few remaining historic features. Since beginning work in June, contractors have uncovered an entire staircase, with decorative cast iron balustrade, that had been hidden behind another, newer staircase.
Workers were even more surprised to discover a walled-in urinal that was never properly removed.
Two existing building vaults are also being incorporated as storage space in the new floor plan.
Most of the work contractors are now in a race to complete by year's end involves finishing the first two floors of the building, which Health Department workers are slated to occupy for the duration of the local health crisis.
But once that work is over, county officials anticipate an ongoing need for the building and expect to spend a few hundred thousand dollars more to fully finish the remaining floors and exterior over the coming year, Geary said. That would bring the total building renovation cost closer to $6 million, he said.
But Geary said he hopes the renovation will enable the county to save money in the long run.
The county currently leases office space in about half a dozen buildings, most of which are occupied by the Department of Social Services, the county's largest department. If the county could bring some of those employees back into county-owned space, the county stands to save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, he said.
The Health Department is still expected to continue to occupy the first two floors for Covid-19 related response work for at least the next year or two, Geary said.
The fourth floor would be dedicated as future employee training space. Currently, the only large, open training space available for the county's thousands of workers is in the Fire Training Academy or SUNY Erie, Geary said. While the Rath Building has some conference rooms, they aren't big enough or open enough to meet personnel training needs.
The new Lincoln Building will give the historic structure new purpose for years to come, he said.
"With the flexibility of the Cares Act funding, we're able to renovate and adaptively reuse space that we couldn't afford to previously," Geary said. "The building could have been blighted or ruined, but it's a significant part of our history."