I am writing this blog entry from a data center site where they just had the “topping-out” ceremony.
"Topping out" is the term used by ironworkers to indicate that the final piece of steel is being hoisted into place on a building, bridge, or other large structure.1 The project is not completed, but it has reached its maximum height. To commemorate this first milestone the final piece of iron is usually hoisted into place with a small evergreen tree (called a Christmas tree in the trade) and an American flag attached.2 The piece is usually painted white and signed by the ironworkers and visiting dignitaries (figure 1). If the project is important enough (and the largesse of the contractor great enough) the ceremony may culminate in a celebration known as a "topping out party" in which the construction crews are treated to food and drink.
I signed my name and www.greenm3.com on the topping-out steel beam.
After all the signatures.
And ceremony pictures. (Below are the iron workers)
One reason the ironworkers observe the topping out custom is the simple fact that they are the first workers to reach the top of the structure. I guess the impulse to commemorate the achievement is similar to that of mountain climbers-or astronauts landing on the moon for that matter.3 Topping out the structure means the end is in sight for the "raising-gang"-the men who actually set the iron in place. There is more work to be done, and ironworkers will be involved in some aspects of it, but the heavy work is done and the raising gang is almost out of a job. While no two topping out ceremonies are the same, they usually have some combination of a tree, a flag, the ritual signing of the final beam, and a party.
The beam is put in place.
An interesting piece of trivia is the symbolism for the Christmas tree.
The custom of decorating the uppermost point of the structure with an evergreen tree is a tradition that predates the structural-steel industry in America by hundreds of years and has old Northern European roots. Although the topping out tree has ancient roots there is no consensus among modern ironworkers as to what exactly the tree symbolizes, or when and how it came to be used by the ironworkers. According to The Ironworker, the union's official publication, "for some the evergreen tree symbolizes that the job went up without a loss of life, while for others it's a good luck charm for the future occupants"(1984:11). Other accounts attribute the tree as signifying simply that "we [ironworkers] did it" (Kodish, 1989:2).
Little scholarship has been published on this custom. Most of what has been published has appeared in newspapers, popular magazines and engineering trade journals. One can get a feel for the age and scope of such tree rituals from James Frazer who discusses tree worship extensively in The Golden Bough. (Indeed, the title of the book itself is an allusion to tree worship.) For example, in Chapter Ten, "Relics of Tree-Worship in Modern Europe," Frazer reports that it was common practice in spring or early summer for the people to go into the woods and cut branches and fasten them to every house (1922:139). Frazer further remarks, "The intention of these customs is to bring home to the village, and to each house, the blessings which the tree-spirit has in its power to bestow" (1922: 139). The evergreen tree's ability to survive the harsh Northern European winter must have made it a powerful life-affirming symbol.