At the core of the Integrated Science Center project is a new “bridge” building that spans the Fonteyn Kill, a wetlands area that traverses the campus. Steelworkers recently hoisted its final beam into place.
Crews refer to the act of affixing the final beam as “topping out”—meaning that a building has reached its maximum height. It’s considered an important milestone—one that’s steeped in quirky traditions.
The custom involves painting the final beam white, so the crew can sign it, affix a national flag, and attach a small evergreen tree to the top of the beam before installing it.
During a ceremony on June 12, steelworkers and construction managers celebrated with top Vassar administrators. “The mood of the day was happy and boisterous—even though it was gray and raining!” says Buildings and Grounds Project Manager Bob Nilsson.
Crew and college administrators alike signed the beam. President Hill simply inscribed, “Cappy 2014.” A member of the crew added, “Wer’s Raising Gang,” a shout-out to the men who actually set the iron in place. Eventually, all the elements were situated and the beam was hoisted and riveted onto the iron skeleton of the building.
But what exactly is the significance of the “topping out” tradition?
It’s a “reaching-the-summit” kind of experience, says John V. Robinson, author of “The ‘Topping Out’ Traditions of the High-Steel Ironworkers,” published in the Autumn 2001 issue of the academic journal Western Folklore. “I guess the impulse to commemorate the achievement is similar to that of mountain climbers—or astronauts landing on the moon,” he writes.
It’s clear that signing the beam indicates pride in a job well done. And Robinson says that hoisting the flag probably evolved as a way for workers to show their patriotism. But there is little agreement on the significance of the evergreen and how it came to be used as part of the topping out ceremony. According to Robinson, the custom predates the American structural steel industry by hundreds of years. The practice likely began in Europe and may have its roots in ancient pagan rituals. Today, the tree is thought of as a symbol of good luck for future building inhabitants.
When completed in fall 2015, the 80,000-square-foot “bridge” building will offer its inhabitants modern labs, faculty office suites, flexible classrooms, and gathering places such as a cafe and an outdoor seating area.
The structure, together with the New England and Sanders Physics buildings (due to reopen with significant upgrades this fall), will form the Integrated Science Center, Vassar’s destination for 21st-century science education.
Photos ©Vassar College-Karl Rabe