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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San Francisco now has a taxi app for kids

"See you later, Mom - I'm off to get a ride from a complete stranger." Image: Shuddle.

While using taxis for the school run might sound a little extravagant, most parents would agree that, on occasion, it would be nice to palm a lift off to someone else - even if it means paying them. Last September, The New York Times reported that parents are increasingly shuttling their children around in Uber taxis. 

The problem is, parents of younger children may not feel comfortable sending them off in a car with a total stranger. Enter new app Shuddle (presumably a portmanteau of shuttle and cuddle? Or huddle? Muddle?), which is providing a specialised taxi service for children in San Francisco. The cars are driven by "childcare specialists" who must have experience in childcare, undergo background checks and receive additional training.

The service launched yesterday, and operates, like most new car-hire services, through an app. However, Shuddle doesn't come with quite the same benefits as other app-based services: you must book cars at least a day in advance, and users pay a monthly $9 fee on top of charges per ride.

Perhaps as a result of the childcare requirement, all 100 of the app's drivers are women. This is very uncommon for taxi services - in New York, 1 per cent of yellow taxi drivers are women, which led Stella Mateo to found SheRide, which provides female drivers to female passengers. 

The gender shift in new taxi services may also be a product of a trend towards personalisation. SheRide is for women who want women drivers; Shuddle is for parents who want drivers with childcare experience. At a recent keynote event for Hailo, the black cab taxi app, one speaker predicted that this trend may go even further, with in-app user profiles listing your preferences: 

As you step into the cab, they will have an idea of your likes, dislikes and interests. The in-cab media will be showing you a relevant TV channel. Or maybe you want to work, in which case you’ll be offered a quiet, undisturbed journey. Perhaps you are planning to catch-up your favourite team’s game on TV when you get home? The driver will know you don’t want to hear the score.

This might be going a little far. Call us old-fashioned, but cabbies wouldn't be cabbies if they weren't talking your ear off about their favourite topics, irrespective of your interest (or lack thereof). 

 
 
 
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