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. 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.

 
 
 
 

5 people who are really worried about London's Garden Bridge

A mock-up of the planned Garden Bridge. Image: Heatherwick Studios.

Last week, a group of campaigners and locals gathered in Waterloo to discuss their objections to Thomas Heatherwick's planned garden bridge. We've collected together various problems with the plans before, but were interested to see the range of objectors from different backgrounds who turned up at the meeting.  

Where necessary, we've also added some information from the Garden Bridge Trust themselves – mostly from the bristly "Fact vs Fiction" page on their website. 

1. Ann Kendrick, Chair of the London Cycling Campaign: because cyclists can't use it

Kendrick told the meeting that she was “extremely concerned” by the lack of provision for bikes on the bridge:

It would be appalling for so much public money to be spent at this time on a new river crossing which excludes cyclists. This project does not seem to have been thought through. By 2030, we will have 10m people in London and there will have been a massive increase in the numbers of people on bikes.

(As quoted in Architect's Journal.)

The Trust has said that cyclists would need to “push their bikes across, or use alternative routes nearby”. This is apparently to ensure the safety of pedestrians. 

2. Cezary Bednarski, bridge designer and architect: because Heatherwick may not be the right designer

Bednarski is concerned that Heatherwick was not fairly chosen as the bridge’s designer, after documents seen by Architect’s Journal showed he did not score highly in several of the appointment panel’s categories, including, er, bridge design experience. 

At the event, he said:

This student should go back to the drawing board because this project fails on every count. 

(As quoted in Architect's Journal.)

3. Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green party: because it's very expensive for a single green space 

The Trust calls the bridge a "green corridor" which will be home to all sorts of wildlife and link ecologies north and south of the river. It will play host to 2,500 square metres of garden.

But Bennett claims the bridge is an example of "greenwash" – something which masquerades as something environmentally friendly in order to win funding and public support. At the meeting, she made the point that the £60m of public funding dedicated to the bridge could be used to create green spaces all over the city. 

4. Michael Ball, Lambeth resident: becuase it will block views 

Ball, who was also in attendance at the meeting, has successfully petitioned for a judicial review of Lambeth Council's approval of the bridge, as he claims the plans don’t adequately protect the settings of nearby listed buildings.

From The Guardian

Lawyers for Ball are arguing that Lambeth council failed to comply with its duty to protect the historic settings of listed buildings in the area, including Somerset House. They also maintain long-term funding arrangements for the project have not been properly considered.

5. Christian Wolmar, Labour mayoral candidate: because it's a commercial venture 

Ahead of the event, mayoral hopeful Christian Wolmar told London Loves Business that he doesn't buy the project's public pretensions: 

It’s not a transport project, so £30m of TfL money and £30m of transport money is being spent on something that really is a tourist attraction that has commercial possibility.

It doesn’t seem to be something we should be supporting as a transport scheme when it has no such function. It doesn’t make any coherent sense.

The Trust says the bridge will be free to visit, except during a maximum of 12 annual fundraising events. 

Other attendees included Fiona Haughey, archaeologist for Time Team, who has done research into erosion of London's riverbanks; Hugh Johnson, President of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association; Caroline Pidgeon, Liberal Democrat London Assembly member; and Val Shawcross, Labour London Assembly member. 

At the moment, it looks like the bridge is likely to go ahead in its current form – as long as Ball's judicial review fails, of course. Every objection raised at the meeting has been acknowledged before, and Westminster City Council and Boris Johnson both gave the designs the nod anyway. Ah, well.