The story of the world’s smallest skyscraper

Scraping the sky. Almost. Image: Solomon Chaim at Wikimedia Commons.

According to Emporis, a real estate data company, a skyscraper is a “multi-story building whose architectural height is at least 100 metres”. By that measure, the Newby-McMahon building in Wichita Falls, Texas, which is widely known as the “world’s smallest skyscraper”, isn’t actually a skyscraper at all.

In fact, it’s not even close – the building is four storeys and 12 metres tall, which in most peoples’ minds makes it little more than a house with ideas above its station. When it was built in 1919, skyscrapers weren’t reaching the heights they are today – but even then, the Newby-McMahon wouldn’t have cut an impressive figure next to the 241 metre Woolworth building in New York, the world’s tallest building at the time.

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Newby-McMahon alongside its major worldwide skyscraper competitors.

Unfortunately for its investors, the building’s limited stature came as shock to pretty much everyone – apart from the man who built it.

J. D. McMahon was the owner of the Wichita Falls oil company, whose offices occupied a one-story brick building on the corner of Seventh and La Salle. Next door was a vacant lot, and during the local boom sparked by the discovery of oil in 1912, he decided to meet the city’s growing demand for office space by turning it into a new skyscraper. The building would, plans appeared to show, be 480 feet (146 metres) tall – not bad for a small city barely past its 40th birthday. 

McMahon drew up blueprints and plans to show investors, who promptly gave him a total of $200,000 (around $2.7m at today’s prices) to get going on construction. Preferring to keep things in-house, he decided to use his own construction company to build the structure. 

This might be why it took the investors a little while to realise they’d been had. Slightly too late, it became apparent that McMahon was not, in fact, building a 480 foot tower: he was building a 480 inch one. The investors tried to bring a lawsuit against him, but the judge found that they didn’t have a case: they’d signed off on the original blueprints. Sure enough, these promised that the building would be 480" tall, and not, as they’d assumed, 480'.

Construction was completed, if you can call it that, in 1919. The building was 12 feet long, 9 feet wide and 40 feet tall. The elevator company had pulled out, so there wasn’t even a way to get from one floor to the next. And McMahon hadn’t even asked for permission to build on the land. None of this bothered him, however – he disappeared from the town, and probably the state, shortly after, presumably with a good chunk of the investors’ $200,000 in his back pocket.

In his absence, the building became the city’s problem. During the oil boom, it had been an embarrassment; during the depression that followed, it was a liability. For a while, the building was occupied by two firms (the extra-narrow stairs that were added later took up around a quarter of the floor space); later it was boarded up.

For the rest of the 20th century the block was occupied by a string of barber shops and cafes, and on multiple occasions it was scheduled for demolition, but it somehow survived to be palmed off onto a local heritage society. But it remained controversial. In 1996, Ralph Harvey, of the Wichita County Historical Commission told a reporter from Texnews, “I’ve never understood why some people make such a big deal about it. But about half of the people around here want to save it. The other half would prefer it just to be hauled off.”

In the end, the first half won out, and the building was restored to its former, er, glory. Today it’s a local tourist attraction, with an antiques dealership on the ground floor and an artist’s studio upstairs.

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The plaque adorning the building today. The date is that of the completion of the one-story building next door. Image: Solomon Chaim at Wikimedia Commons

The Newby-McMahon has often been used as a symbol of the gullibility of the boom era: of the eventual realisation that no, the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, the petroleum boom won’t last, and this building is not, by any definition, a skyscraper. Yet Fodor’s 2008 guide to Texas, which prides itself on highlighting “the best this big and beautiful state has to offer”, names the Newby-McMahon building as a must-see attraction. If those investors had known, maybe they’d have hung on to it.

 
 
 
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$100m cable car network proposed for New York

More fun than the subway. Image: East River Skyway.

When it comes to the world of public transport, cable cars don't exactly have the best reputation. The cable car route in London, dubbed the Emirates Air Line and mysteriously staffed  by people dressed as Emirates air stewards, cost £60m to build (more than double the original estimate), but is only used regularly by an estimated 16 commuters. As The Guardian noted last year, "It would have been cheaper to buy them a gold-plated mini bus."

But if Dan Levy, CEO of New York real estate company CityRealty, has noticed any of this, he hasn’t been put off by it. Earlier this week he put forward proposals for an entire network of cable cars named the “East River Skyway” connecting Manhattan to Williamsburg, Long Island City and the Brooklyn Navel Yards by air. The cars would each car fit up to 48 people, and would run every 30 to 40 seconds, at 12-17 miles per hour.

Levy’s thinking is that, as the city’s population increases, there’ll be more and more pressure on transit routes running from the city’s outer boroughs to its centre. Last October, the subway network recorded nearly 6m passengers in a single day, its highest figure ever. Introducing an entirely new form of cross-river transport could help relieve some of this pressure.

Levy estimates that the skyway would cost around $100m to build, including the cable network and stations. That's a lot – but it's a lot cheaper than building a new subway line. The Second Avenue subway, currently under construction in the Lower East Side, will cost around $20bn to build.

The first Skyway line would be built between Williamsburg and Delancey Street (also, as it happens, in the Lower East Side). It would, Levy claims, offer a four minute commuter time. That’s a huge improvement on the 20 or 30 minutes the same journey would take you by bus or subway. Later lines would take you from Brooklyn to Queens in three to 12 minutes.

Here’s a map showing the proposed network, spread over three stages of development:

Images: East River Skyway.

There’s no word yet on how much a ride would cost, or whether the cars would be integrated with the rest of the transit network. Levy presented his ideas at the Brooklyn Real Estate Summit yesterday in order to drum up private investment, so it’s possible that he envisions the network as being privately owned and run. Even so, if the cable cars take a few passengers off its hands, they’d be doing the Metropolitan Transport Authority’s fans a favour.

 
 
 
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