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.

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.

 
 
 

CityMetric Advent 22: A snapshot of social isolation in the suburbs

All alone. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Social isolation and loneliness are becoming common in our large cities. Our cities are sprawling, housing is becoming more unaffordable, people are travelling further and longer in their cars and household size is shrinking.

So what exactly is social isolation? It's a condition which affects people who don’t have strong social connections or interactions with other people. It places them at risk of low self-esteem; higher levels of coronary heart disease, depression, and anxiety; and below normal levels of happiness or subjective wellbeing.

A community snapshot of metropolitan Melbourne, "Melbourne Vital Signs 2014", reveals a number of factors likely to influence social isolation. It showed that one in five households spent more than 30 per cent of their household income on housing. It shows that incidences of family violence have increased by 16 per cent between 2012 and 2013. More than 13 per cent of youth aged 15-19 years are not engaged at all in work or study. Finally, more than 18,500 people are estimated to be homeless in metropolitan Melbourne. These are just a few of the factors related to where and how people live that contribute to social isolation in the suburbs.

Transport networks are another important influence of social isolation. They not only link people to work and study opportunities, but also allow them to socially connect with people, linking people to places where social interactions occur. Getting around is difficult for many people living beyond the transport rich areas of inner city; close to 25 per cent of Melburnians report inconvenience to their daily lives arising from transport, with the oldest and youngest having the most trouble getting around.

Life also becomes more car-dependent in the outer suburbs. A recent local government community survey found that 81 per cent of residents drive to work, leaving little time or energy to connect or volunteer with local community.

Limited transport affects people’s ability to access the employment and education opportunities associated with feelings of achievement and productivity and social interactions. More generally, it’s very hard to socialise, build relationships and new networks needed to get a job, when transport is limited or restricted to car ownership.

So what would the ideal neighbourhood look like if it promoted wellbeing and reduced social isolation?

It would be safe, attractive, socially cohesive, inclusive – and environmentally sustainable. It would include diverse and affordable housing. There would be convenient public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure that was linked to employment, education, public open space, local shops, health and community services, and leisure and cultural opportunities.

It would be a neighbourhood that provides for the needs of all people across the lifespan – children, youth, adults and older adults. It would embrace diversity and difference, and have active, informed and engaged residents.

Melbourne has been named the world’s most liveable city for the last 4 years. There remain, however, many challenges we need to work at to reduce social isolation in this city and many others across the country.

People need to access services they need within close distance, a “20 minute city” where neighbourhoods have key services available within a 20 minute distance. The ideal would have higher densities that provide more local employment opportunities and greater services, reducing sprawl and helping to connect people to places, and most importantly, more easily to each other.

Social isolation is not an issue specific to the festive season – but it can be harder for those people who have few people to connect with. So over the coming weeks, as life becomes busier in the lead up to Christmas and the end of the year, it might also be a good time to reflect on our own lives and think about how we can create more connected and inclusive communities.

It might be as simple as saying “hello” to someone on the train, talking to a neighbour or smiling at someone when you’re shopping or walking in your local area. Think about donating a gift or toy for someone who needs it more than you, or inviting someone without family or friends to join your Christmas meal. These might sound like very simple activities – but if everyone put their phone down for a little while maybe we could just bring a little more human kindness to the world and improve social isolation in the suburbs.

Melanie Davern is a research fellow, and Lucy Gunn a post-doctoral student, at the University of Melbourne.The Conversation

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