'Topping-out' ceremony marks progress on addition to Nursing Sciences Building

February 27, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Passersby on College Avenue may have recently noticed a curious sight at the Nursing Sciences Building on Penn State's University Park campus. A single white beam sits atop the construction site for the building’s new entrance, inscribed with the College of Nursing's name and embellished by an American flag and evergreen tree. These are the accoutrements of an ancient rite known as the topping-out ceremony.

On Feb. 22, the College of Nursing had such a ceremony to commemorate the “topping out” of the new entrance — that is, the placement of the beam at what will be the structure’s highest level.

“’Topping out’ is the term used by contractors to refer to the installation of the final piece of structure, or the completion of the roof on a large construction,” said Chad Lakatosh, project executive at Poole Anderson Construction, LLC, the contractor for the Nursing Sciences Building project. “It signifies not the completion of the project, but rather the fact that the structure has reached its maximum height.”

To commemorate the milestone, the final structural piece is painted white, signed by construction workers and dignitaries, and hoisted into place with an evergreen tree (and, in the United States, an American flag) attached. The tradition of the tree dates back to before the Dark Ages in northern Europe, Lakatosh said.

“Scandinavian folklore suggests a widespread practice of placing a tree atop a new building to appease the tree-dwelling spirits of their displaced ancestors,” he said. The practice spread to the British Isles as a result of Viking invasions in the eighth century, and eventually reached other countries as well.

In modern construction, one reason for the “topping out” custom is to observe the fact that the workers are the first to reach the top of the structure, according to John V. Robinson in "Western Folklore" (Autumn 2001, pp. 243–244): “Topping out the structure means the end is in sight for the ‘raising-gang’—the men who actually set the (beam) in place,” he wrote. “There is more work to be done … but the heavy work is done.”

There is indeed much work yet to be done at the Nursing Sciences Building, but workers took some time out that Wednesday to pen words of acknowledgment on the steel beam. “May these students forever change the world!” wrote Don Walker of Somerset Steel Erection Co., a subcontractor. College of Nursing Dean Paula Milone-Nuzzo dedicated her own contribution to “the future of Penn State Nursing.”

Located on the opposite side of the building from the current main entrance, the construction site will be the new main entrance for the building, which houses offices for the College of Nursing and the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health, classroom and lab space, and the new Penn State Employee Health and Wellness Center.

Last Updated February 28, 2017