Construction of the Susan Welch Liberal Arts Building at Penn State's University Park campus marked another significant milestone this week.
The University held a “topping out” ceremony at the construction site on Wednesday, July 26, during which representatives from Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts, School of International Affairs and Office of Physical Plant gathered with representatives from the architectural firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and construction managers from Turner Construction to watch workers fasten the final steel beam into place at the top of the Welch Building — the first new liberal arts building at University Park in more than 50 years. Work will now commence on the installation of the building’s exterior walls, followed by its interior features.
Following some brief remarks, the beam was lifted by crane, carrying along with it two common additions to a topping out ceremony — an American flag and a small fir tree. From there, guests were taken on a tour around the building’s perimeter by Joe Campbell of Turner Construction and Allen Kachel of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, who showed video renderings of the building’s interior on a tablet device.
As he stood outside the massive steel skeleton wearing a hard hat, Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, marveled at the rapid progression of the project.
“It seems hard to believe that we stood not too far from this very spot about a year ago with hard hats and shovels to break ground on the new project,” Lang said. “What a difference a year makes.”
Chad Spackman, facilities project manager for the Office of Physical Plant, said the tree’s inclusion in a topping out ceremony is traced to an old Scandinavian spiritual tradition, as well as a purported Native American belief that no building should be taller than the nearest tree.
“It’s believed they would put the tree on the highest steel beam so that the tree would still be taller than the building,” Spackman said. “And the flag’s inclusion — some say it’s used for wind direction and so forth, but typically it’s just meant to represent our great nation.”
Named in honor of the late Susan Welch, dean of the college from 1991 until 2019, the building was made possible by a transformational gift from Gene and Roz Chaiken to recognize Welch’s enduring impact on the College of the Liberal Arts and the University. With the gift, the Chaikens became the largest scholarship donors in Penn State history.
In January 2022, the Penn State Board of Trustees unanimously approved the building’s name, and ground was officially broken on the project in August 2022. The total cost is estimated at $127.7 million, with most of the funding coming from the state, borrowing and capital reserves.
When it opens its doors in fall 2024, the 143,000-square-foot Welch Building will serve as the new home for the College of the Liberal Arts’ departments of Anthropology, Political Science, and Sociology and Criminology, as well as the School of International Affairs. It also will house the Matson Museum of Anthropology, School of Public Policy, Population Research Institute, McCourtney Institute for Democracy, Criminal Justice Research Center, and a host of other labs, centers and institutes.
Lang said the building will prove “a new epicenter of groundbreaking research and intellectual discovery.”
“For students, the Welch Building will become their newest ‘place to find their place’ — a modern, innovative hub of scholarship, research and social activity where undergraduate and graduate students alike have the chance to learn and work alongside faculty; forge friendships and create a sense of community; and prepare for whatever personal or professional journeys await them,” Lang said.
He added, “I can’t begin to tell you how much I look forward to being back here again in another year or so, this time with scissors in hand to cut the ribbon on the first new liberal arts building at University Park in more than half a century.”