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.png

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.

 
 
 
 

Why is Central China like the MidWest? Why big countries have names that don’t make sense

Some soldiers jump in the air before a 32m statue of Chairman Mao: by far the most interesting photo of Hunan province we could find. Image: Getty.

So a few weeks ago, reading some pretentious history thing or another, I caught a reference to Mao Zedong’s birth in – I paraphrase slightly, but this was the sense of it – “the central Chinese province of Hunan”. And, being the sort of nerd who will break out the Atlas faster than you can say “located on the south bank of the Yangtze River”, I opened Google Maps so I could get a sense of exactly where we were talking about here.

I’d be lying if I said I’d ever given any serious thought to exactly what the phrase “central China” might mean. But if pushed, I guess I’d probably have assumed Hunan to be somewhere roughly here:

It’s central China, central means “middle”, that’s roughly the middle of China, QED.

Except, as it turns out, it doesn’t. Here’s where Hunan actually is:

That to me looks like the south east. In that it’s the bottom right hand bit on a standard map.

But okay, the Chinese know their country better than I do – and, as it turns out, there is a region often known as central China. It consists of the provinces of Henan, Hubei and Hunan and also, sometimes, Jiangxi. Here it is:

In other words, Central China is nowhere near the centre of China. It actually means the central bit of eastern China. As opposed to west China, the government definition of which takes up more than half the landmass of the country:

 

All this reminds me of something. The MidWestern United States covers a vast swathe of territory, from North Dakota down to Kansas in the west, to Michigan and Ohio in the east. Like New England or the Deep South, “the MidWest” isn’t just a geographical region, but a label that carries a lot of associations about what MidWesterners are supposed to be like (short version: nice).

Whether these clichés are true is a matter of debate. But one thing that’s obviously not true is that they live in the Middle Western bit of the United states landmass, because look:

That X is the official geographic centre of the contiguous United States. It’s in Kansas, roughly 12 miles south of the border with Nebraska.

It’s blindingly obvious that most of the “MidWest” is actually to the north and – more damningly – east of this line. The easternmost edge of Ohio is under 550km from the Altantic Ocean; it’s more than six times that (over 3,600km) to the Pacific). The idea that this is “the west” seems nonsensical.

And yet, once, it was. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby bangs on about the difference between eastern old money snobbery and western nouveau-riche pretention. And when its author wrote of “the west”, he meant the MidWest, something like a third of the way across the continent, and still clearly in the eastern half of the United States. Even 150 years after the US declared independence, and 80 after its territorial expansion made it to the Pacific, it was still possible for New Yorkers to think of the shores of Lake Michigan as “the West”.

Even though China is approximately 17 times older than the United States, there’s a pretty close parallel at work here. Both the “midwestern United States” and “central China” were labels coined by officials and populations that were once crammed into the eastern corners of the modern states. Both China and the US started out hard against their eastern coast, and then populated the west. Even today, Western China, which makes up over half the country’s landmass, contains less than a quarter of its population.

The territorial expansion of China – in gif form! Image: Wikipedia.

So, at the time those labels came into common currency, they made some kind of sense. The Midwestern United States was the west (though not the proper west, with the deserts and cowboys in it); Central China was the centre of the historic heart of China.


To outsiders, looking at those countries today, they don’t quite make sense any more. But a) who cares what outsiders think, and b) the labels have stuck. Attempts by the official government census to re-label the MidWest “the North Central Region” were abandoned in 1984: it made much more sense in terms of where it was, but it just wasn’t what people actually called it.

In other words, if a country is going to experience major territorial expansion after people have already started naming things, there’s a chance that some of its geographical labels are going to end up seeming silly.

At least, that’s my theory. To stress test it, it’d be really helpful if there were a third giant country, whose historic and major population centres are all at one end of its landmass; and which retains an official name reflecting this fact, even though – when viewing the country as a whole – they don’t make a great deal of sense.

Anywhere, here’s a map of the “Central” Federal District of Russia:

Just saying.

UPDATE, 18.30hrs: A couple of people have been in touch to highlight something I failed to mention. Much of Western China was not historically Chinese at all (or at least, not historically Han, the dominant Chinese ethnic group). The west today is still dominated by other ethnic groups, including the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, some of whom still have lively independence movements today.

I don't think this changes my core point – that the country has ended up with some strange ideas of its internal geography, because it has expanded beyond its historic (Han) heartland – but it was an oversight not to mention it. Sorry.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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All maps in this post courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.