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Posts Tagged ‘tree on the roof’

Photo: Suzanne’s & John’s Mom.
Have you ever wondered how this tradition got started?

Here is what I was able to find out about the custom of putting a tree on the roof of a building under construction.

Mark Vanhoenacker posted one explanation at Slate in 2013. “The tree is an ancient construction tradition. There are many such rites associated with a new edifice including the laying of foundation stones, the signing of beams, and ribbon-cuttings. But what’s particularly charming about the construction tree is that it isn’t associated with the beginning or the end of construction. Rather, the tree is associated with the raising of a building’s highest beam or structural element.

[The] name of the rite: the topping-out ceremony. It’s a sign that a construction project has reached its literal apogee, its most auspicious point. …

“When a new building reaches its final height, it’s not surprising we’d mark the occasion with a ceremony. But why celebrate with a tree?

“In fact, the first topping-out ceremonies didn’t use trees. In 8th-century Scandinavia sheathes of grain were the plant material of choice. But as topping-out ceremonies spread throughout northern Europe, trees were a natural evolution. …

“The ancient topping-out ceremony has survived mostly intact in this era of high-tech, high-altitude edifices. In the U.S., particularly on large projects, the final beam is often signed, and an American flag may accompany the tree skyward. The purpose of the ceremony — at least for shining skyscrapers — is usually couched in comfortably post-pagan terms: a celebration of a so-far safe construction site, an expression of hope for the secure completion of the structure, and a kind of secular blessing for the building and its future inhabitants.

“But superstition remains a part of the ceremony, especially on smaller projects. Elizabeth Morgan, an architect at Kuhn Riddle in Amherst, Mass., (and a childhood friend) told me that the general understanding among her colleagues is that the greenery may ‘symbolize the hope that the building will be everlasting.’ She also reports a vague sense among construction teams that ‘if you don’t do it, bad things will happen.’

“Her colleague Brad Hutchison noted that ceremonies often involve a pine bough, not a whole tree. He remembers a wintry Friday afternoon ceremony when a pine bough was mounted on the ridge beam of a recently framed roof. … ‘This is New England, so a lot of carpenters are/were sort of New Agey and took the tradition somewhat seriously,’ he said. ‘New-Agey superstition and carpentry/building go well together, I think.’ …

“What about outside of America? The tree tradition reputedly remains strong in much of northern Europe. … In Victoria, Australia, Kate Ulman, a farmer and blogger, recently attended a topping-out ceremony at her parents’ house. Their construction team had never been to a topping out but were familiar with the custom. This being Australia, in addition to a fir branch, they added—what else?—some eucalyptus. And there was cake.

“What about in Hong Kong, where skyscrapers are a revered form of public art, and the resulting skyline dwarfs even that of New York? I contacted Julia Lau, a Hong Kong architect. … Lau told me that despite Hong Kong’s British heritage, Western topping-out ceremonies are rare. The main celebration is Chinese-influenced and takes place at the start of construction, with a roast suckling pig. On the (auspiciously numbered) date of the ceremony, a stakeholder in the building will bow three times while holding three pieces of burning incense — a pleading for a ‘safe and smooth-sailing project,’ says Lau.”

Sandra and I walked by the building in the photo this morning around 6 (hot day). We’d been wondering about the custom. The topping-out here uses a branch from a nearby tree and is not actually attached to the roof but hoisted nearby to look like it. I hope it still brings luck.

More at Slate, here.

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