Topping off the Albert Sherman Center

Ceremonial beam signed, then lifted to the top of the steel skeleton

By Michael Cohen

UMass Medical School Communications

December 16, 2011

Under a clear blue sky, hundreds of people from the UMass Medical School community strolled onto the green-grass carpet at the edge of the Albert Sherman Center (ASC) construction site Wednesday, June 15, to sign a white steel beam. Then they watched as it was hoisted to the top of the nine-story building.

One name in particular, near the middle of the beam, stood out. Albert “Albie” Sherman, former vice chancellor for university relations, flanked by his wife Linda, son Peter, and a throng of well-wishers, put marker to steel and inscribed the beam that is now a structural element of the building that bears his name.

“It’s overwhelming,” Sherman said after signing the beam. “That’s the only word that comes to mind when I think of this building and what will be done inside of it—overwhelming.” 

Chancellor Michael F. Collins led the topping off ceremony, paying tribute to Sherman and recognizing many of those involved in the conceptualizing, design and construction of the building. “This is a transformative project,” Chancellor Collins said. “We believe that the research efforts that will be undertaken in this building will yield seminal scientific discoveries that ultimately will lead to pioneering treatments and cures that will benefit all of mankind.”

Also speaking at the ceremony were Massachusetts Life Sciences Center President & CEO Susan Windham-Bannister, Worcester City Manager Michael O’Brien, State Senator Harriette Chandler, UMass Building Authority Executive Director David MacKenzie and outgoing UMass President Jack Wilson.

“I think this beautiful day symbolizes what we are doing here today,” President Wilson noted. “After all the rain we’ve had, look at this day, look at this building and look at this campus and how far it has come.”

The topping off ceremony kicked off a campus tribute for Wilson, who has led the University since Sept. 2, 2003, and will be concluding his presidency on June 30. Wilson will be succeeded by Robert L. Caret, PhD, the president of Towson University in Maryland, on July 1. “It’s particularly fitting that this topping off ceremony is a component of our campus tribute to Jack Wilson, because he has been such a pillar of support for this project,” Collins noted.

The first piece of steel at the ASC, an upright column, was placed on Dec. 22, 2010. Since then, the iron workers and crane operator from James F. Stearns Company have placed an average of 52 pieces of structural steel each working day. A total of 6,664 major beams and columns, along with approximately 2,500 smaller steel elements, make up the framework of the building.

The signed white beam, decorated with the American flag and a small evergreen tree, was bolted into place at approximately 3:45 p.m. by two iron workers ready at the top of the structure, eliciting a round of applause from those gathered for the ceremony.

“Topping off is one of the key moments that we always look forward to and celebrate during the construction of any building,” said John Baker, associate vice chancellor of facilities management, who is overseeing the ASC construction project. “For a project as large and complex as the Albert Sherman Center, however, this will be an especially important and gratifying day. The entire design and construction team deserves a lot of credit for achieving this milestone.”

The topping off ceremony marks the completion of the highest level of the building. Steel placement at the ASC will continue for another month, as the team builds out the lower section of the building closest to the campus green.

“We’re reaching this milestone on time, which is a great testimony to the skill and hard work of the steel team,” said Michael DiBacco, project director for Suffolk Construction Company, the construction manager for the ASC. “We’ve faced some really adverse weather conditions on this project, with all the snow in the winter and the rain in the spring. And I’ve been very impressed and pleased with the effort that the Stearns crew has maintained. They’ve done a great job.”

The precise origin of the topping off ceremony, also known as a topping out ceremony, is a matter of historical debate. Some sources trace it back more than 1,000 years to Scandinavian traditions of placing a tree branch on the top wooden beam of a structure to please the Norse gods who protected the forests. Others look to Native Americans, many of whom worked on the early skyscrapers built in the United States, who placed a tree on the highest point of the building to honor the traditional belief that no man-made structure should ever reach higher than the highest tree.

Those involved in the ASC construction, however, simply acknowledge the event as a celebration of an important milestone in recognition of all the work done to date and as a portent of good luck for those who will occupy the building.

“Now our focus will be to get the building weather tight,” DiBacco said. “People will soon start to see the exterior of the building closed in. We hope to be weather tight by the end of the year.”

Each piece of steel used to build the ASC is precisely fabricated at the Cives Steel Company yard in Augusta, Maine, then numbered and shipped to the site by truck. Approximately 85 percent of the steel in the building contains post-consumer recycled material, such as old cars and appliances that were melted down for the new steel. More than 10 percent of the steel in the ASC is recycled from pre-consumer material, which is scrap from manufacturing processes that never made it into a finished consumer product.

Scheduled to be completed in late 2012, the ASC will double UMass Medical School’s research capacity and expand its current educational space to support the new learner-centered Medical School curriculum. For more information about the project visit the Albert Sherman Center website.

Related links:

Learn about the Sherman Center’s café and fitness center
A preview of coming Sherman Center attachments
Sherman Center website