The Chester County Hospital and Health System will commemorate the official "topping out" on Thursday, September 13 for an expansion project that will add 72 new private patient rooms once completed. This "topping out" - a construction tradition - marks the conclusion of the steelwork for the 93,000-square-foot Tower Project. The ceremony will provide the opportunity for Hospital leadership to acknowledge the good work of the building planners and construction tradesmen on this project, which is on schedule to be completed next summer.
In building construction, a topping out ceremony - one of the industry's oldest customs - is celebrated when the last beam is placed at the top of a building. It usually includes the placing of an evergreen tree and a U.S. flag upon the structure. The pinnacle of the topping out ceremony will take place when the final piece of steel - often painted and signed - is hoisted into place and secured by the ironworkers. The Hospital's white beam has been signed by hundreds of its employees, and will include the signatures of the tradesmen and its leadership.
The exact origins of the ceremony are obscure and written accounts have traced its lineage both to Native American and European customs.
According to The Ironworker (June 1979), "At one time, Europe was covered with a vast forest. Those who inhabited the forest were dependent on trees for their survival. The full, low-hanging boughs provided shelter, the nuts and fruits furnished food, and the fallen dead wood supplied kindling for fires. Because of this great dependence on the forest, people began to revere trees."
The magazine continues, "Humans began constructing their shelter with wood. Before cutting a tree, they would formally address the forest, reminding it of the consideration they had always shown toward the trees and asking the forest to grant use of a tree for construction of their home. When the house was complete, the topmost leafy branch of the tree used would be set atop the roof so that the tree spirit would not be rendered homeless. The gesture was supposed to convince the tree spirit of the sincere appreciation of those building the home."
A differing explanation can be traced to the American Indians. Modern Steel Construction (December 2000) shares, "...the tradition originated around the time when high-rise construction became necessary in most major cities. During this time, many of the contractors employed American Indians on their construction crews. ...American Indians believed that no man-made structure should be taller than a tree. This belief became enough of an issue at the time to prompt someone to place a tree at the top of a topped-out building."
Its practice in the United States has long been an important component of timber-frame building, when a tree or leafy branch from the forest was placed on the topmost beam. Some suggest that as the size of buildings has increased the pine bough has evolved into a Christmas tree, which can be more readily seen from a distance.
Historically, the evergreen has come to represent good luck for the future occupants, to symbolize a safe build, to acknowledge the American Indian belief that no man-made structure should be taller than a tree (United States), to show reverence to trees (Scandinavia), to appease the tree spirits for cutting trees for lumber (Teutonic Tribes), to ward off evil spirits (North European region), to acknowledge the 'birth' of a new building (Germany, originators of the Christmas tree tradition), to remember those who may have died during construction so they might have eternal life (Ancient Egypt), to mark the start of the celebration for the building (Renaissance era), or to celebrate a successful challenge (Viking region).
The tradition of elevating an American flag at the Topping Out ceremony dates back more than a century, when steel framing became popular. Tradesmen began draping their work in American flags to show patriotism, to represent the American dream, to thank American soldiers, and to acknowledge a foundational product made in U.S.A.
Today, a non-religious but formal ceremony is often held to commemorate this milestone in the construction of a building. All tradesmen on the job join in the celebration as well as the supervisors, members of the architecture and engineering teams, and representatives of the hosting organization.
The Ironworker adds, "Today, the custom is continued most frequently on completed structures such as bridge and skyscrapers. The Ironworkers have carried on the 'topping out' tradition and consider it their own. While others join the celebration of 'topping out,' it is the Ironworker and his skill that make him first to reach the pinnacle of the structure, and it is around this group of workers the 'topping-out' revolves.'