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. But it 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.

 
 
 
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How ski lifts could ease congestion in cities around the world

A cable car over La Paz, Image: Getty.

For a demographic that is growing, urban Africans spend a lot of time sitting still. In Nairobi, Kenyan motorists spend hours a day in their cars; a standard seven-mile commute can take up to two hours. One driver I know uses his time stuck in traffic to cut his toenails. Miles-long queues are good for hawkers and for the thieves who prey on drivers distracted by their phones but the deputy governor of Nairobi estimates that traffic jams cost Kenya’s economy almost $600,000 per day.

The story is similar in almost any fast-expanding city in the developing world: construction is booming and populations are growing but transport systems are struggling to keep up. We are undergoing the fastest urban growth in history. More than half the world’s population lives in cities and that proportion is rising. The UN Population Fund estimates that the greatest urban growth will be in Asia and Africa, particularly in smaller towns and cities with fewer resources to respond to change. These cities will have no space for extensive road and overland rail systems and no money to build underground railways, which can cost between £150m and £300m per mile.

Now think of ski lifts, a symbol of Alpine decadence, but imagine them soaring over a city such as Nairobi or Johannesburg. These cable cars would be built not just for tourists but for everyone, from bankers and cleaners to gardeners and jobless slum-dwellers, venturing into the wealthier side of town.

The world’s largest ski lift manufacturer, a century-old Austrian company called Doppelmayr, could soon revolutionise transport in cities across the developing world. Over the past seven years, the idea of urban cable cars has taken off, Ekkehard Assmann, Doppelmayr’s head of marketing, tells me. “Many huge cities are seriously thinking about solving their traffic problems with them.”

A Doppelmayr ski lift. Image: SteGrifo27 at Wikimedia Commons. 

Following the success of cable cars in Caracas, Rio de Janeiro and Medellín, almost every major city in South America has expressed an interest, Assmann says. In sub-Saharan Africa, the construction of a cable car in Lagos, Nigeria, is nearly complete. A feasibility study is under way in Kampala, Uganda, and the World Bank has approved a $175m financing loan for the project.

Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, built its first cable car in 1952. Four years later, Algeria constructed an aerial tramway in Algiers. Today, Algeria is considered a world leader in modern urban cable cars; it has aerial transport links in four major cities, including four lines in the capital, Algiers.

Doppelmayr built the UK’s first urban cable car, Emirates Air Line, which opened in 2012 and makes a ten-minute journey across the Thames between the Royal Docks and Greenwich in south-east London. The service, dubbed the “Boris cable car” after the Mayor of London described himself as its “Yuri Gagarin” at its opening, has been criticised for being underused. But Danny Price, who oversees the “air” line, says it is already covering its operating costs.

The economic arguments in favour of urban cable cars are compelling. They can carry 5,000 passengers an hour in each direction – this is fewer than subways, which can transport more than 20,000 people an hour, but cost ten times as much. Provided they are well used, cable cars are more energy-efficient than most transport systems because the engines run at a constant speed. The upfront costs are also comparatively low. A typical two-kilometre line might cost £5.1m, experts at a 2012 urban transport conference in Ethiopia estimated.

They can be cheap for users and quick to pay back the capital investment. In Constantine, Algeria, a cable car system carried 4.5 million passengers in its first year, at a cost of 12p per trip. Even at that price, it covered its operation and maintenance costs.

What’s more, cable cars are an exhilarating way to get around. Faith Kangai Njeru is a second-hand clothes trader, domestic help and mother-of-two in Nairobi. She travels for at least an hour to and from work each day. Because of this commute, she has to employ her own domestic help and nanny, although she earns just £4.30 per day. I show her a video of Alpine ski lifts. Faith has only ever seen snow on TV and she watches carefully, as if searching for the snag. Next, I show her a video from Tlemcen, Algeria, where cable cars hang like blue glass baubles high above the streets.

She sits back, smiling. I ask her how much she pays for her bus fare and run her through the arguments in favour of cable cars – but her worries about money seem forgotten. “It’s fun!” she says, settling the debate. 

Jessica Hatcher is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi.

This piece was originally published in the 17 October print edition of the New Statesman.

 
 
 
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