American History & Geography: Grades 9-12

It Was The Best Of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times: Understanding The Context In Which The Empire State Building Was Built

Overview of Lesson Plan:

In this lesson, students will contemplate why the Empire State Building means so much to so many people. They will then research the era in which the building was built, the Great Depression, to gain an understanding of why this is one of the world's greatest success stories.

Suggested Time Allowance: 1 hour


Students will:

  • Contemplate why the Empire State Building has become such an important symbol.
  • Discuss the Great Depression.
  • Research the 1920s and 1930s.
  • Write opening day speeches for the Empire State Building.


  • student journals
  • pens/pencils
  • paper
  • classroom board
  • resources on the Empire State Building and the 1920s and 1930s including history textbooks, encyclopedias, computers with Internet access, etc.


  1. WARM-UP/DO-NOW: Have students reply to the following prompt written on the board prior to class: "'The Empire State Building is a symbol of the American spirit,' of a steadfast determination to achieve the impossible. [from Thirteen Months to Go, page 19.] Why do you think someone wrote this about the Empire State Building? Given what you know about, or have seen of, the building, how do you think it symbolizes the American spirit?" Allow students five minutes to write their responses.
  2. Have the class discuss the following: How were the Great Depression and the enormous financial venture of the Empire State Building able to occur simultaneously? When did the Great Depression occur? Where? Was it isolated to one city, one country? Was everyone affected? In the world? Help the class understand the characteristics of the Great Depression.
  3. Inform the class that they will be researching the era during which the Empire State Building was built, 1929-1930. Divide the class into seven groups, assigning each group to one of the categories below. Instruct students that their goal is to report on what was occurring in their categories over this two-year span. With the exception of the "Global Events" groups, students will be researching New York in particular, and America in general. Their findings should be presented on poster board with pictures and accompanying text addressing the questions below:

    Architectural Developments

    • What buildings and structures were being built during the 1920s and 1930s?
    • Who were the biggest names in architecture and real estate?
    • What were the trends in building designs at this time?


    • What was occurring with the American economy during this period?
    • What were the trends in the stock market in the beginning of 1929 and how did these change?
    • Find statistics on costs of common items, average income and salaries, richest companies and individuals, and stock trends.

    Global Events

    • What major events were occurring in the world at this time?
    • Who were the most prominent figures, either on the rise or already in the spotlight?

    Politics and Society

    • Who were the key political figures in New York and in America?
    • What were some of the major political and social issues of the day?
    • What key legislation was being enacted or fought?

    Popular Culture and Arts

    • What were the most popular books, songs, plays, and other forms of entertainment?
    • Who were the most popular figures?
    • What were the trends in fashion?


    • What were the most popular religions in America at this time?
    • What new religions were being introduced?
    • What religious groups were in the news around the world?

    Technological Advancements and Science

    • What important inventions are available (those that were then recently introduced)?
    • What important, related inventions have yet to be introduced?
    • What major achievements have occurred?

    Once students have completed their research, have them create and display posters around the room that report on and illustrate their research. Have the groups share some of their findings. Then, have the class discuss the following: "What made this period of time both impossible and perfect to build the world's tallest building?"

  4. WRAP-UP/HOMEWORK: Consider the context in which the Empire State Building was designed and constructed. What was intended to be a huge office building came to be considered by many as the eighth wonder of the world. For homework, imagine you are former Governor Al Smith at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Empire State Building. Write the speech you will deliver praising this amazing accomplishment and the people who worked on it, and talking about what the building means to New York and the nation.

Further Questions for Discussion:

  • In what ways did the economic depression actually help an enormous undertaking like the Empire State Building?
  • Could a project like this succeed in New York today? Why or why not?
  • In Dubai, United Arab Emirates, the Burj Dubai Skyscraper began construction in 2005 and is scheduled for completion in 2009. Its planned height will be more than twice the height of the Empire State Building. Do you think it will be held in the same esteem as the Empire State Building? Why or why not?
  • Should people continue to make such huge skyscrapers? Why or why not?


Students will be evaluated based on participation in the initial exercise, thoughtful participation in group research and presentation, and their written speeches.


communism, depression, erect, prohibition, prosperity, skyscraper, steadfast

Extension Activities:

  1. Using the information gathered in class about the years 1929-1930, transform your classroom into a "Thirteen Months" gallery walk. Such a walk invites people to look closely at a range of material that highlights the words, images, and sounds of a particular time and place. The materials for the walk are to be displayed gallery-style on the walls and in other spaces of the classroom.
  2. To create this gallery walk, students must gather a broad range of print and visual materials that cover the thirteen months of the Empire State Building's construction. Resources to consider include: photographs, quotations, maps, charts, graphs, essays, editorials, articles, primary source documents, music, film or video clips, or artifacts of any kind. These can be displayed around the classroom in "stations," preferably in chronological order to create an interactive timeline.

Author: Javaid Khan, The Bank Street College of Education, New York City


Communism n. A system of government based on the theory that it should distribute all wealth equally to everyone.

Depression n. 1. A state of sadness and low spirits. 2. A period of drastic decline in a national or international economy, characterized by decreasing business activity, falling prices, and unemployment.

Erect a. standing upright.

Prohibition n. Specifically, the forbidding by law of the sale of alcoholic liquors as beverages.

Prosperity n. Advance or gain in anything good or desirable; successful progress in any business or enterprise; success.

Skyscraper n. A very tall building.

Steadfast a. Not wavering; constant; firm; resolute.

Academic Content Standards:

This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from "Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 3rd and 4th Editions" and have been provided courtesy of the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning in Aurora, Colorado.

American History: Level IV [Grade 9-12]
Standard 23. Understands the causes of the Great Depression and how it affected American society
Benchmark 1. Understands influences on the national and global economy in the 1920s and 1930s
Benchmark 2. Understands the impact of the Great Depression on American culture
Benchmark 3. Understands how the Great Depression influenced local, state, and charitable resources in the period 1930-1938

World History:
Standard 40. Understands the search for peace and stability throughout the world in the 1920s and 1930s
Benchmark 6. Understands the causes of the Great Depression and its immediate and long-term consequences for the world

Standard 22. Understands how the United States changed between the post-World War I years and the eve of the Great Depression
Benchmark 1. Understands the major social issues of 1920s America
Benchmark 2. Understands factors that contributed to changes in work, production, and the rise of a consumer culture
Benchmark 3. Understands influences on urban life in America during the 1920s
Benchmark 4. Understands the impact of new cultural movements on American society in the 1920s

Standard 9. Understands the nature, distribution and migration of human populations on Earth's surface
Benchmark 4. Understands the impact of human migration on physical and human systems
Standard 12. Understands the patterns of human settlement and their causes
Benchmark 4. Knows the consequences of factors such as population changes or the arrival/departure of a major industry or business on the settlement patterns of an area (e.g., stress on infrastructure, problems of public safety and fire protection, crisis in delivering school and medical services)
Benchmark 5. Understands the physical and human impact of emerging urban forms in the present-day world