Topping-Off Ceremony Marks New Phase and Mission of St. Vincent Health Sciences Center

April 25, 2023

On a bright, sun-splashed morning at St. John’s University’s Queens, NY, campus, the final piece of steel in the construction of the innovative St. Vincent Health Sciences Center was hoisted three stories above a cheering crowd. Gathered to witness the milestone event on April 25 were an eclectic mix of clergy, Trustees, dignitaries, University administrators, faculty, members of the design and construction teams from Shawmut Design and Construction and CannonDesign, and organized labor partners—all united in the mission of advancing health-care education.

That shared mission was invoked by Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., President, who addressed the crowd by saying, “St. John’s is making a major investment in the health sciences and the people—like nurses and health-care providers who deliver extraordinary service to others—thus living the Vincentian mission.”

Scheduled to open in the Summer of 2024, the new 70,000-square-foot new home for existing and future health sciences programs ushers in a new educational era at St. John’s. The construction project, being completed by Shawmut Design and Construction and CannonDesign, is estimated to cost $106 million and is a major generator of economic activity in Queens County and beyond.

During the construction process, the last steel beam placed is a major milestone in the evolution of a building project. This milestone is commemorated by painting the beam white and having the steel construction team, designers, property owners, and dignitaries sign it for posterity.

Reminiscent of old-fashioned barn-raising celebrations, in the United States the beam in a topping-off ceremony is typically adorned with a small evergreen tree and an American flag. This custom celebrates the construction process and is viewed as the first introduction of the building to the public.

The tree is the key symbol in the steel trade as it signifies construction has reached the sky without injury and it bodes well for the future inhabitants of the building. Throughout history, the tree appears to have conveyed different meanings to diverse cultures and is believed to date back to the belief of Indigenous People who believed no structure should be taller than a tree.

Fr. Shanley paused to acknowledge that construction of the St. Vincent Health Sciences Center would not be accomplished without the generosity and commitment of benefactors like Peter P. D’Angelo ’78MBA, ’06HON, and Margaret LaRosa D’Angelo ’70Ed ’22HON, and the late Nickolas “Nick” Davatzes ’62C, ’64G, ’95HON, Trustee Emeritus, cable television pioneer, and his late wife Dorothea Hayes Davatzes ’66Ed.

“We depend on our generous benefactors to help us to help our students and to live our mission,” he said.

Dave Margolius, Executive Vice President of the New York Metro Region, Shawmut Design and Construction, recalled first being exposed to the extraordinary mission of St. John’s when he attended the 25th Annual President’s Dinner last October. “It was an incredible opportunity to see St. John’s values in action,” he said. “Not only was this spirit talked about, but it was made clear how these qualities are lived by everyday folks who do extraordinary things for the St. John’s community and far, far beyond. These are the things we think of when we look at the foundation and structure of this building.”

Turning toward a group of laborers donned in hard hats and safety vests, he shared, “On behalf of the builders and tradespeople here, we are proud and thankful to play our part in bringing to life compassion and service, and to serve your mission to educate the next generation of caretakers—who will undoubtedly do extraordinary things for our families and our communities.”

During his remarks, Simon G. Møller, Ph.D., Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, University Distinguished Professor, and Provost Endowed Chair, observed, “When completed, the St. Vincent Health Sciences Center will feature state-of-the-art classrooms, cutting-edge laboratories, patient simulation facilities, and transformative virtual reality technology that is redefining what is possible in the health-care industry. It will include collaborative spaces, outdoor terraces, breathtaking vistas, and so much more. But above all, it will be an amazing home for generations of caregivers, health-care professionals, and individuals who are committed to improving the lives of others.”

After the beam was blessed with holy water by Rev. Aidan R. Rooney, C.M., M.Div., M.Th. ’78NDC, Executive Vice President for Mission, select guests were invited to individually sign the beam. The variety of names immortalized on the radiant white beam include Fr. Shanley; the D’Angelos; Honorable Donovan Richards Jr., Borough President of Queens; senior campus leaders; members of the Real Estate Advisory Committee; the Nursing Initiative Executive Team; and the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences’ Advisory Board.

Against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, a crane slowly lifted the special beam and gingerly placed it into its permanent location as a rousing cheer erupted from the crowd. The radiant beam joins 1,137 columns and beams and 875 tons of steel being utilized in the foundation of the innovative learning space.

At a postevent reception that followed the ceremony, Brian Baumer, Associate Vice President of Campus Facilities and Services, flanked by his colleagues Jacques Theus, Executive Director of Design and Construction, and Tobias Bisharat, Project Director of Space Management, proudly gazed upon the now-completed skeleton of the building.

“Good things are happening here,” he reflected. “A year from now this building will be almost ready to open and dramatically change the campus landscape and the learning environment at St. John’s.”