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.


There’s a kickstarter campaign to fund a reprint of the British Rail design manual

A mock up of the British Rail branding book. Image: Wallace Henning.

Way back last year CityMetric brought you news of a couple of fundraisers with a simple dream – to bring the New York subway graphics manual available to anyone who wanted to buy it.

That, it turned out, was a lot of people: the campaign raised over $250,000 on its first day alone. People, it seems, really, really love a spot of transport design.

Since then others have been taking notice. Just last month a similar project raised over six times its funding target at almost a million dollars in order to make available reproductions of the original NASA branding papers.

But what about the design fans based in the UK, we hear you ask: can they, too, get their government-issue font-based kicks?

Well, now they can. This Kickstarter campaign wants to bring the British Rail corporate identity manual to a coffee table near you.

The campaign wants to republish documents from the 1960s, a decade in which time British Rail underwent a branding overhaul. Introducing the now-iconic “double arrow” logo, the BR design team set about creating a modern, consistent corporate identity across the mammoth network.

Reams of diagrams and graphic templates were produced, specifying the minutiae of everything from trackside architecture, to uniforms, to stationery. If it meets its funding target, the new clothbound hardback will bring together approximately 220 original diagrams. You can see the thing on this site here.

Will this fundraiser be as successful as its stateside cousin? As we write it has reached about a third of its target with one month to go.

One might assume that the customer buying into the New York Metro branding and all of its connotations might represent a rather different demographic to the British Rail equivalent. BR was many things, but it was never particularly cool.

But perhaps with time, its connotations of shabbiness are ebbing in favour of a distinctly British nostalgia. Who else could look back with even a vague fondness for leaves on the line and the wrong kind of snow? No mention as yet of whether the unique specifications of a British Rail sandwich will make it into the finished book.

You can find out more about the Kickstarter campaign and donate here.

Or you can like us on Facebook, if you like.

All images: Wallace Henning.