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.

 
 
 
 

Cab drivers: blocking London roads won't drum up our sympathy

Another black cab protest last May. Image: Getty.

London's black cab drivers are, too put it politely, annoyed. 

In their eyes, the rise of car hire firms, and in particular apps like Uber, are undercutting their prices and putting them at risk. A Knowledge training centre, where cabbies are tested on their geographical nous, has been threatened with closure partly due to falling demand.

A recent ruling by TfL on the issues surrounding Uber (whether they in fact count as taxis, since they use a kind of metred approach to pricing, for example) eventually gave it pretty much free reign. Cabbies had called for measures including a mandated five minute wait before an Uber picked up a passenger; but all that's changed in practice is that drivers must have English lessons and will no longer be exempt from the congestion charge.

Mayor Boris Johnson commented after the ruling that you "can't turn the clock back on technological progress", which implies that he, like me, thinks the five minute wait suggestion is a little like making the early automobiles crawl behind a man with a red flag, to ensure they didn't go too fast. 

Then there's tax. A particular bugbear for cab drivers is the fact that Uber pays its tax through the Netherlands, not the UK: a recently circulated stat asserts that four cab drivers pay more tax than the whole of Uber in the UK. 

To protest against these various woes, the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) has once again declared a strike – or, as one cabbie described it in the Guardian, "a campaign of civil disobedience". Today, around 5,000 cabbies were predicted to join together to block streets around Whitehall. It's working:

The tweet from political blogger Mike Smithson shows red traffic alerts on streets throughout central London, apparently as a result of the strike.  

My instinct is that this won't drum up the support cab drivers perhaps expect. Tube strikes, which also brought London to a standstill, provoked anger and frustration, but you could also see that the drivers were simply demonstrating their point: that they are indispensable public service, and should be treated as such.


Cabs are a part of London's history, but they're not indispensable: they're a product, which people can buy or not buy as they choose. No cabs in London would be annoying, but not a disaster, which is why the drivers have apparently decided to block roads rather than conduct a strike in the usual way. 

If Uber and other car hire firms can offer similar service for lower prices within UK laws, then it's hard as an outsider to see why they shouldn't: in fact, to say so is practically anti-competition. 

Trevor Merralls, the cab driver who wrote about the strike in the Guardian yesterday, makes a fair point when he argues that Uber should pay UK tax, and thereby make the playing field a little more even. But beyond that, it's every car for itself.