Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… a tree?
No, your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you; there is a tree on top of that massive metal frame. It might be accompanied by the American flag but, according to legend, the tree came first.
The most common reason given for topping out the completed frame is that it originated with the Swedish or Nordic peoples. The custom started when all buildings were made of wood. There was a belief that a spirit lived within each tree. Anyone using that tree for building made their justification for doing so to the forest and then placed a tree on top when the frame was complete to give the tree spirit somewhere to live.
It probably was also meant to keep the spirits from creating mischief for those living there. It may also have been an invitation to people for a big party.
Eventually, the individual tree spirits became a single god of the forest that could move between the trees. Placing a tree on top of the building frame was a way of enticing the forest god to bestow good will on the inhabitants.
In Germany the fashion was to put up an evergreen tree signaling the birth of a new building. It may have also helped to ward off evil spirits. Or it may have been to ask for fertility in the future of the people and the land.
There is even a Native America version that says nothing should be taller than a tree. To keep the peace, a tree was placed at the top of a building once the frame was complete.
Early 20th Century
In the United States something called the American Plan (1919), which disallowed unions, was unpopular with construction workers. So an American flag began to appear in place of the tree in a show of solidarity with other construction workers who wanted union protections. Sometimes the tree was also a symbol for those died in the construction of the frame.
Over the rest of the century trees and flags continued to be placed when the final topping member was put into place signaling the final height of the building and the end of a phase of construction. In the northwestern United States, however, the tree is only used if there were no fatalities during the framing phase.
Typical of our time, today’s topping out is used for promotional purposes. The tree may be there but it may be festooned with the American flag, balloons, and other accoutrements. Often the company that owns the building will have a media event and a party to celebrate, mainly to keep up interest in the building and the company itself. It may be accompanied or replaced by a white girder placed last with the workers signatures on it.
The main point is that a tree standing on top of the frame of a building signals the completion of the frame or perhaps even the completion of the building. Like so many traditions, there is long and hazy history to it but it remains a meaningful ceremony to anyone who has worked to create such structures.