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.


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. However, the building 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.

newby mcmahon.jpg

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.


Housing crisis politics, disastrous subway maps, and how Richard Curtis gentrified London

Notting Hillgate. Image: Clemensfranz.

Our weekly round-up of urban stories we enjoyed elsewhere.

Downhill from here

Fast Company magazine ran an interview this week with Massimo Vignelli, designer of the 1970s New York subway map and creator of its style guide (a reprint of which recently attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars on Kickstarter). He pulls no punches on what's gone wrong since:  

If you look at today’s map, it’s a total disaster, with fragmentation all over the place... this is what we tried to avoid.

He does admit that his own map would have been improved by using a blank background, like the London Underground map, as the apparent relationship between the map and the city's real-life geography only confuses users: 

If I made a mistake, it was not making the geography abstract – making the water beige and the parks gray instead of green – it was just the fact that we indicated these things when we shouldn’t have. We should have just made it blank. 

Personal and political

This week, women's magazine website The Debrief intereviewed shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds about the UK housing crisis, and frankly found her answers a bit lacking. 

The journalist (Daisy-May Hudson, whose family was forced to declare themselves homeless after being evicted from their rented flat), concludes in the piece that politicians, many of whom are either unaffected by the crisis, or are benefiting from the higher value of their own property, still see the crisis as an abstract problem:

With 4,000 households at risk of losing their home every week, it’s too late for small gestures. If food prices had risen at the same rate as house prices, a chicken would now cost £51.33.

Can you imagine the uproar, the questions in parliament, the headlines if the cost of a roast dinner skyrocketed like the housing market has? Yet in the face of people losing their homes, politicians are paralysed in inaction. We need to take drastic measures.

A not-so-short history of skyscrapers

Will Self has written a very long piece on the meaning skyscrapers for Guardian cities. He's particularly funny on the recent rash of oddly-shaped skyscrapers in London: 

I accord this development – in terms of my own life at least – to be a great irony: having failed to up sticks and move somewhere exotic while I still had the necessary verve, I’ve awoken in middle age to find that Shanghai is my new neighbour.

It's all Notting Hill's fault

So from explaining the housing crisis we turn to the causes of gentrification. Richard Curtis told the Independent this week that he fears he, godfather of saccharine British film, is personally responsible for Notting Hill's gentrification. From the interivew

I strongly support the campaign to try to keep Portobello Road as Portobello Road. I worry that my film [Notting Hill] was part of making that job more difficult.

Don't be too hard on yourself, Rich.