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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Glowing roads, Halloween pop-ups and London's national park

The business of Halloween. Image: Turnkey Events.

Some of the city stories we enjoyed elsewhere this week.

  • Designer Dan Roosegaarde, of glowing tree streetlights fame, has used glow-in-the-dark paint on a stretch of highway in the Netherlands to create road markings. Unlike cats' eyes, the markings don't rely on reflecting light, making them safer for cyclists and easier to follow for cars. Once the markings have been tested in the Netherlands, they may be rolled out in other countries, including the UK. 

This video shows them in action:

  • This piece at How We Get To Next, the site accompanying the science and futurism TV series of the same name, follows the attempt of one Londoner to turn the city into a National Park. This may sound bonkers, but Daniel Raven-Ellison argues that London is actually one of the greenest urban areas in the world, and should be recognised as such. Here's one of his promotional graphics, which shows London's land categorised by use:

Raven-Ellison told the site: 

There’s a sense that somehow the wild has to be pristine to be valued. But if you’re an individual flower, or pigeon or fox, you’re no less wild. There are just fewer of you, and you’ve learned to be in a city better than maybe other things. But that doesn’t make you any less valuable.

  • CityLab has taken an unusually economics-based approach to their Halloween coverage in the form of this piece on Halloween pop-up stores. The stores, which appear one day in August stuffed with masks and capes, then disappear just as suddenly on 1 November, have suffered as the economy's improved and as rents have inched upwards. To save on overheads, some now operate from giant tents in shopping centre car parks:

That Halloween pumpkin tent might look silly. (I would say "delightful.") But more of them could be a telltale heart—no, sign—of a slow but steady economic rebound. And what could be less scary than a robust national retail sector?

  • And finally, forget skeletons and pumpkins - it's  UN World Cities Day. The Guardian is marking the major international holiday by hosting 12 minute pitches of city ideas from all over the world. Meanwhile, we're mostly unwrapping gritty urban gifts and cracking open the port. 
 
 
 
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