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.


Is the night tube good for London?

First night of the night tube. Image: Getty.

After months of delays and industrial action, London’s long-awaited “night tube” is finally a reality. This will be music to the ears of punters who want to party on beyond one o'clock in the morning, and night-time workers who want to get home quicker after their shifts.

Successive London mayors have been trying to deliver a 24-hour tube service for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it will make the city even more attractive to international investors and visitors. Non-stop mass public transport will place London in an exclusive group of cities with 24/7 metro services, including New York, Chicago, Melbourne and Copenhagen, and help it continue to compete in a post-Brexit environment.

The second reason is that a 24-hour service would allow the city’s night-time economy to prosper. A recent study estimated that the night tube would give London a £360m boost over the next 30 years. In particular, clubs, bars, theatres and restaurants stand to make solid financial gains.

The bright side

Those who already have to move around at night will experience immediate benefits. The tube is faster than taking the bus, walking and cycling, and much cheaper than taxis and Ubers.

Keeping the London Underground running around the clock is expected to cut anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour off night-time commutes, as well as providing a cheap form of transport for people on low incomes who travel in the early hours of the morning.

It also means that more drivers will be able to leave their cars at home: less emissions, less pollution, less noise and fewer traffic accidents are to be expected.

Transport for London expects that nearly 180,000 trips will be made on the night tube between 00:30 and 06:00. This is good news for night-time businesses: they will have more clients and earn more money.

It is also going to benefit all sorts of companies that run night shifts. They will have a larger pool of potential employees to choose from, as the night tube enables more people to travel quickly to and from work during unsociable hours. This will smooth the way to help global businesses implement flexible working hours, which will help them to operate more effectively.

Not so bright

Unfortunately not everything is bright in the cities that never rest. If the night time economy grows, it follows that there will be more people working and commuting at night. This might be good for business, but there is evidence to suggest that working night shifts can have significant negative impacts on the health and well-being of employees and their families.

What’s more, the quality of life of people living nearby tube stations, clubs and bars is likely to fall – as is already being seen in some central areas of London, such as Soho. Many Londoners won’t enjoy being exposed to London’s hectic streets during the day, only to come home to the noise of a bustling night life in their neighbourhood. And there are several other documented drawbacks to the night-time economy; from damages inflicted on town centres, to growing power centred in the hands of large chain pub companies.


A bit grim. Image: Stròlic Furlàn/Davide Gabino/Flickr/Creative Commons.

Property prices in areas served by the night tube are likely to change. Some will see their values decreasing because of exposure to noise and other nuisances. But the majority of houses will see their values increase even more. The long-term consequences of this are increased gentrification and more debt.

Roughly 90,000 of the 180,000 night tube journeys are expected to come from people switching over from other night-time transport services – including the night bus, taxis, car sharing schemes, private hire vehicles and night parking services – so these will inevitably lose some clients. But these alternative services are also likely to benefit from the anticipated boost to the night economy.

In the long term, a 24/7 tube service might prompt more people to move out to the edges of the Greater London area. As people realise that travelling to London is becoming easier and can be done at any time of the day, the appeal of cheaper accommodation outside the inner city rings will increase.

Striking a balance

Whether or not the night tube is a good thing depends on what you value. Investing in the night economy and facilitating it by means of better transport services means greater revenues, a more competitive city and more night-time fun for those who want it, and can afford it. But it also means that many could see their quality of life diminishing.

There are a few general principles, which could help London to make the most out of its night tube. The first is to co-ordinate the time and fares of different transport modes, including regional train, bus, cycle schemes, taxis and even airport services. This will improve the overall efficiency of all transport systems, taking the strain off service providers and making logistics easier for travellers.

Next, decisions about transport and urban land use must balance the need for movement with the importance of sustainability and high-quality of urban spaces. This will ensure that the city stays functional and liveable for decades to come.

It’s also important to keep thinking about transport on a human level. This goes beyond measuring the impact of changes to the system in terms of time savings and efficiency. It also requires city planners to think about what possibilities different transport systems offer, to meet different passengers' needs. It also means considering how various types of transport can affect local communities.

So, is the night tube a good thing? It’s up to you, really.The Conversation

Enrica Papa is a senior lecturer at the University of Westminster.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.