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. 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.

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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.

 
 
 
 

No. 2: The hotel that's half in France, and half in Switzerland

The border runs lengthwise through the two buildings, passing just to the left of the mural. The mural and everything to the right of it lies in Switzerland; France lies to the left. Image: Roland Zumbuehl/Wikimedia Commons.

On Monday, we ran a story under the provocative headline, "Is this the most ridiculous city boundary on earth?" At risk of revealing the man behind the curtain, we had an inkling, even then, that it wasn't, but we thought it might make a good headline for a piece on a boundary that was, to be fair, pretty blody silly.

Anyway. The internet being what it is, we were overwhelmed by the response from people wanting to tell us that, no, it obviously wasn't the most ridiculous boundary, because hadn't we heard of this one. And, to be fair to the internet, some of these are pretty bloody silly, too.

Over the next few weeks, then, we thought we'd tell you about them. So here, for your delectation, we present the next installment in a continuing series:

The hotel that straddles the Franco-Swiss border

Image: Google Maps.

The tiny village of La Cure, just north of Geneva, was once entirely in France – until suddenly one day in 1863, it wasn't.

Actually, it wasn't that sudden: the change had been agreed in a treaty the year before. The French were very keen on getting hold of the Vallee des Dappes, which provided a military route to nearby Savoy, and which they'd briefly held during the Napoleonic wars, until they'd been forced to give it up at the Congress of Vienna. In the half century since, those awkward Swiss had proved a bit bloody minded about giivng it back.

So, in 1862, they came up with a plan. The French would get their valley back; in return, the Swiss would get a similarly sized patch nearby. That included a chunk of La Cure. 

More than that, in fact, it included chunks of certain buildings: the new boundary ran right through the middle of the town. The treaty, hilariously, went to the trouble of stipulating that tany building divided by the new border was to be left undisturbed, presumably to stop their owners getting the hump when one side or other decided to knock half of their house down.

The Treaty didn't come into force until the Swiss ratified it the next year. But in the intervening months, one enteprising local ("Cureé?") had spotted a business opportunity. His own land was bisected by the new border – why not stick up a new buiulding and use it to flog stuff to all the cross-border traffic he expected to materialise from somewhere?


And so, he did. The Swiss side got a grocery store; the French side got a bar. 

How profitable this cross border trade was in the short term, history doesn't record, but what is clear is that by the 1920s, the business was struggling, and the place was bought out by one Jules-Jean Arbeze. He decided to remodel the building as a hotel which, with great modesty, he named after himself.

The Hotel Arbez is not only bisected by an international border. Its dining room is bisected by that border. So, in fact, is the bed in the honeymoon suite. Another room has a French bathroom but a Swiss bedroom. The lower half of the stars are French; the upper half are Swiss. The bar – this may or may not be a significant piece of information – is entirely Swiss.

According to some reports, during the Second World War, the Germans occupied the French side of the hotel; the Swiss side, though, remained neutral, and consequently the Germans weren't allowed upstairs where the resistance was hiding.

This feels just a tad unlikely to us – Nazis that can't go upstairs? They're Nazis, not Daleks – but okay.

Anyway, the hotel is still there, and you can still, if you so wish, spend the first night of your marriage, next to your loved one, in the next country along. So there you go.