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.


David Cameron's starter homes: yet another policy that'll make the housing crisis worse

No, no, don't thank me. Really. David Cameron on Wednesday. Image: Getty.

You know, I tried to think positive. Maybe, I thought, on hearing that David Cameron was going to make an exciting announcement on reforming the planning system on Wednesday, just maybe, this is it. Maybe they're finally getting serious.

After all, the line coming out of Number 10 was that the policies announced by the prime minister would turn "Generation Rent" into "Generation Buy". Surely that meant the government was going to build a lot more houses. Surely.

But no, they're not doing that. Of course they're not. David Cameron's new wheeze is just the latest installment in the government's continuing scheme to buy the gratitude of a lucky few by throwing a few crumbs down from the table. For the rest of the stubbornly still-existent Generation Rent, the best case scenario here is that this latest announcement changes nothing. The worst case scenario is, well, we'll come to that.

A quick primer on the plan, in case you aren't the sort of person who reads up on Section 106 agreements for a giggle. At the moment, property developers who want to build homes for sale are required to build other things too, to get their schemes through the planning system. That can be social housing, which will be sold on to housing associations or councils, and let out at below-market rents; or it can be other community facilities.

What David Cameron announced on Wednesday is that the definition of "affordable homes" governing Section 106 Agreements is to be broadened. In future, it'll include the government's "Starter Homes": those reserved for first time buyers under 40, and sold at a discount of 20 per cent to market rates.

In other words, developers will be given permission to build homes which they can sell, provided that they build other homes. Which they can sell.

The logic here is presumably that developers aren't building quickly enough because they can't make enough money - that Section 106 is just too damn stringent. As unlikely as it sounds, it is at least possible that some brownfield land is going undeveloped, because no one can make enough money building on it under the current regime. The theory here is that making house-building more profitable will unlock that land and, bingo, more houses.

But having asked a few people in the housing sector who know more about these things than me, I was shocked, shocked, to learn that no, of course that isn't what is actually going to happen.

Starter Homes, you see, take longer to sell, because unlike affordable housing, they don't come with a guaranteed buyer. That creates cash flow problems, which might hit development.

Trying to sell cut-price homes on the same site as market-price ones will probably slow things down too, by making the latter less attractive to a big chunk of buyers.

This cheery map shows where "starter homes" will be affordable to low-income households. Image: Shelter.

Worst of all, though, even if this scheme does make house-building more profitable, that will only serve to make land more valuable to developers. That, because of the way the housing market currently works, will push prices up yet further.

In other words, I asked Pete Jefferys, a policy officer at housing charity Shelter, won't this just make things worse? "In terms of affordable housing, definitely," he told me. "In terms of housebuilding it's hard to say - but I see no reason why it will improve things."

If this government really does want to turn Generation Rent into Generation Buy - if the Conservatives really do want to be the party of home ownership, again, rather than the one of buy-to-let landlords it is at the moment - it is entirely within its power to do so.

There is no shortage of land to build on (even if we leave the sainted green belt alone, there's enough to keep us going for a few years). There's no shortage of institutional investors that would be delighted to help fund a major public building programme. Getting a new generation of council houses built would be, if not easy, then certainly not that difficult.

So why is Cameron still mucking around with schemes that won't benefit anyone beyond a few relatively rich 30-somethings? Because, one assumes, he doesn't think the state should be building houses. The state’s only role is to make life easier for developers, and hope and pray that they decide at last to go against their own financial interests, and double the rate at which they build homes.

I may have mentioned this before, but – we are so monumentally screwed.

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