World City: Skyscrapers

Building Up New York City

Social Studies; Engineering

Keywords: Skyscraper, Set Back, Zoning, Empire State Building, Construction
Thumbnail, Samuel H. (Samuel Herman) Gottscho, Empire State Building, January 8, 1934

Essential Question:

What guides the construction of tall buildings in cities?


Students will learn about why cities regulate tall buildings.

Students will learn what kinds of regulations have been implemented in New York City.

Students will test designs for building tall structures.


Measure the length of an object by selecting and using appropriate tools such as rulers, yardsticks, meter sticks, and measuring tapes.

Measure the length of an object twice, using length units of different lengths for the two measurements; describe how the two measurements relate to the size of the unit chosen.

Estimate lengths using units of inches, feet, centimeters, and meters.

Measure to determine how much longer one object is than another, expressing the length difference in terms of a standard length unit.

Generate measurement data by measuring lengths using rulers marked with halves and fourths of an inch. Show the data by making a line plot, where the horizontal scale is marked off in appropriate units— whole numbers, halves, or quarters.


Sticks (pick-up sticks, spaghetti sticks, popsicle sticks, straws, toilet paper rolls, toothpicks, etc.)

Connecting Material (masking tape rolls, glue, gumdrops)

Large marshmallow or cotton ball for the topper


    Ask if students can name or identify any skyscrapers in New York City. As a class have students observe different New York City Skyscrapers, using the Museum’s Collection Portal. Compare and contrast the Empire State Building (featured at the top of this lesson) with other tall buildings. View photographs from the Museum collection of construction of the Empire State Building. Explain that for almost 40 years (from its completion in 1931 until 1970) the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world.

    Background Information:

    “In 1915, when the 42-story Equitable Building was erected in Lower Manhattan, the need for controls on the height and form of all buildings became clear. Rising without setbacks to its full height of 538 feet, the Equitable Building cast a seven-acre shadow over neighboring buildings, affecting their value and setting the stage for the nation’s first comprehensive zoning resolution.

    Other forces were also at work during the same period. Housing shortages, caused by an influx of new immigrants, created a market for tenements built to maximum bulk and minimum standards. Warehouses and factories began to encroach upon the fashionable stores along Ladies’ Mile, edging uncomfortably close to Fifth Avenue. Intrusions like these and the impacts of rapid growth added urgency to the calls of reformers for zoning restrictions separating residential, commercial and manufacturing uses and for new and more effective height and setback controls for all uses.

    The concept of enacting a set of laws to govern land use and bulk was revolutionary, but the time had come for the city to regulate its surging physical growth. The groundbreaking Zoning Resolution of 1916, though a relatively simple document, established height and setback controls and designated residential districts that excluded what were seen as incompatible uses. It fostered the iconic tall, slender towers that came to epitomize the city’s business districts and established the familiar scale of three- to six-story residential buildings found in much of the city. The new ordinance became a model for urban communities throughout the United States as other growing cities found that New York’s problems were not unique.”

    - NYC Government Website: City Planning History

  1. Brainstorm
  2. Divide the class into teams of three to four students. For five minutes have students brainstorm a design for their building. Students will need to decide which materials they will use (allow them to choose one material for the skeleton of the building, one material to hold the skeleton together and one extra material of their choosing). Tell the students that their tower must be able to hold a marshmallow on top and have a space at the bottom that would count as a “door” or “entrance way.” Have them draw out the shape of their building. Questions for them to consider include: How will you make sure your building is strong? How will your building stand up? Would it make sense to have a small foundation and big top?

  3. Build
  4. Distribute the materials and have students try to build the tallest tower that they can. Tell the students that the tower must be able to stand on its own and hold a marshmallow on top of it. Tell them to think about ways to make it strong enough so a fan could not blow it over. Have the students name their tower to unveil it to the class.

  5. Measure and Record
  6. Have the class move from one tower to the next with the students introducing their towers. As a class, have students estimate how many inches they think their team’s tower will be. Use a tape measure to determine the height of different towers that students built. Students can record the results in a chart on the classroom board.

    For an additional challenge, have students take the measurement in inches and centimeters. Have the students convert inches into feet and remaining inches.

    Have each group place a large marshmallow or cotton ball on top of their building to see if the tower is strong enough to hold it.

    After all the measurements have been taken have students subtract their tower’s height from the tallest tower’s height to find the difference. (The tallest tower team can select any other tower’s height to find the difference.) 

  7. Share
  8. Have students describe the process of creating their tower. Have them share what was challenging about building a tall tower and what techniques worked best. Revisit the image of the Empire State Building and ask them if they see why it is built in that shape.

  9. Continued Work (Build A City)
  10. Have the students place their buildings close together and tell them to image they are a tiny person (or use small figures) walking between the buildings. What would it feel like? What could they do to make their city more livable? Tell the students that there are rules that allow light and air to get to the sidewalks in New York City. Before 1916, there were not as many regulations and developers could build in whatever shape and size that they wanted.


New York at Its Core lesson plans were developed in conjunction with a focus group of K-12 New York City teachers from public, private, and parochial schools: Maryann Cooke, Maria Diaz, Sasha Domnitz, William Fong, Gina Giannone, Peter Lapre, Edina Lawson, James Randle, Judy Sokolow, and Matt Thoren. We thank the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Social Studies for supporting the public school teachers’ participation.