They put a tree atop the new Albany convention center building... why?

The Albany Capital Center isn't set to open until March of next year, but officials celebrated the completion of the structural framework of the new convention center in downtown Albany Tuesday with a "topping off" ceremony in which the final steel beam was lifted to the top. And on that beam were an evergreen tree and an American flag.

You might have noticed this sort of ceremony (also known as "topping out") at other local projects -- the Rivers Casino project had one back in April.

So... what's with the tree?

The short answer

The use of the tree is a tradition that stretches back more than a thousand years to the northern Europe. And it's continued in more modern times thanks to ironworkers.

The somewhat longer answer

In the journal Western Folklore in 2001, John V. Robinson explored the origins and traditions associated with topping out ceremonies -- and links the modern version of the tradition to ironworkers. A clip:

One reason the ironworkers observe the topping out custom is the simple fact that they are the first workers to the 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. 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.

Robinson goes to trace the history of the tradition back to its roots in northern European many hundreds of years ago, and its spread throughout the continent and then onto the rest of the world. He notes that there isn't necessarily a consensus on what each element of the ceremony represents, but there are some good guesses:

The tree: Robinson points to scholarship indicating the tree is probably related to traditions of tree worship among northern European people centuries ago. (People used to affix branches to their houses as a sort of blessing.) The editor of the Ironworker Magazine told the New York Times in 1984 that there's evidence of trees being used in the topping out ceremonies of houses in Scandinavia as far back as 700 AD.

And the evergreen tree in particular was a notable symbol of life and vitality because of its ability to withstand the winter.

Here's a 1928 illustration by Rockwell Kent that probably depicts the tree tradition.

The American flag: Robinson traces this back to at least a century ago. And while it's not entirely clear, there are some indications that ironworkers started incorporating the American flag in the ceremony as a way of demonstrating their patriotism during a period in which there was rising sentiment that unions were somehow un-American.

The signed white beam: It's kind of like a painter signing a finished canvased. And painting the beam white made it easier to see the signatures.

The party: This is pretty self-explanatory. Though Robinson notes that there was also a tradition of celebrating the ceremony with alcohol a century or more ago -- building owners would reward workers for raising a structure (such as a barn) by giving them whiskey or rum. (Apparently there was a tradition that if the owner didn't pony up the booze, the workers would top the building with a broom instead of a tree.)

And, of course, the party/celebration aspect of the tradition also now serves as photo op and chance to attract media attention.


Ironworkers Local #12 did this work.

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