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.

 
 
 
 

Why London should bid to be the next City of Culture

A visitor examines two Lowry paintings at Tate Britain.

London should bid to be Britain’s next European City of Culture. It would help to promote the capital’s creative and cultural sectors and create new jobs in these areas; it could revitalise the arts and cultural offer outside of Zone One reeling from huge local government cuts; it could help to draw in the next generation of Londoners to a wide range of new cultural activity and, properly planned, it could be a year-long celebration of the best of Britain and the very best of London’s cultural scene.

Bidding will open at the beginning of 2017 for the honour of being the 2023 European City of Culture, due to take place in Britain. With elections galore between now and then it might be easy for the idea of a London bid to be quietly ignored. London after all is a top European city of culture already and this award is usually a consolation prize for cities in need of a little regeneration - or so some have claimed.

Outside of Zone One where the National Theatre, the big museums and art galleries sit, Outer London’s museums, theatres and other cultural activity are under huge pressure as local government and Arts Council cutbacks have had a profound impact.

A European City of Culture bid backed by the big Zone One institutions could help to regenerate and expand Outer London’s arts scene, creating jobs and inspiring new art spaces and cultural "quarters" from Hounslow to Dagenham and Sutton to Redbridge. Museums and theatres struggling in Outer London could be supported by the big Zone One institutions for a year of Zone two to Zone siz cultural excitement. Given the success of the Tate St Ives or the Tate Liverpool, how about the Tate Croydon and the Tate Harrow; even for just one twelve month period.

Why do the great collections of modern and old Masters have to stay firmly within the Circle Line? Why not an Impressionist display in the Dulwich Picture Gallery or the National Opera and Ballet Rambert performing at the Fairkytes Centre in Hornchurch or the Kingston Rose Theatre. And for one year only why couldn’t we bring a bit of Glastonbury to London’s Outer London parks. Instead of a farmer’s field in Somerset, why couldn’t Kasabian, Dolly Parton or Ed Sheeran - last year’s Glastonbury headliners – perform in the great parks and open spaces of outer London – Hackney Marshes, West Ham Park or the green spaces of Epping Forest?

A City of Culture bid is an opportunity to provide a stage to London’s young and emerging artistic talent and to give younger Londoners a chance to access the best of arts and culture on their doorstep, and through their schools and colleges, instead of having to travel just into central London.

Inevitably the campaign against London will be that we don’t need such status and that other cities need it more. London is one of Europe’s top (if not already better than Paris and Rome) cultural destinations, but City of Culture status would help to draw in more tourists to Britain’s wider cultural and arts scene – starting in London but venturing out beyond the capital.

Around 70,000 jobs depend on London’s creative and arts scene. With increasing automation, this sector offers one source of more decent jobs in the future. Putting business and job creation at the heart of any bid ought to be part to be part of the next Mayor’s vision for a European City of Culture bid.

European City of Culture status also offers a platform for co-operation with emerging economies and a further opportunity to promote London and, from there the rest of the UK, to India and China; Brazil and South Africa.

I have discussed the idea that London should bid with a diverse mix of London’s art and business figures; from Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum to Courtney Pine, Britain’s premier jazz talent and Digby Jones, former Director General of the CBI and Trade Minister. All think the idea of a bid has real merit.

It is for the next Mayor of London to bring London’s great and good together and shape a vision for a City of Culture bid whilst beginning to look for the individual figurehead to lead the necessary London Culture Company.

London cannot rest on its laurels. The Olympics gave London a global stage to perform on but they are now firmly in the past. The world has moved on and London’s leadership needs to look to the future. European City of Culture status offers a further platform to boost London’s economic, social and cultural opportunities. It’s a chance to put Outer London in the artistic spotlight, and to give the next generation of Londoners a huge chance to enjoy the richest range of art and culture.

This article was originally posted on our sister site, the Staggers. You can read the original article here.

Gareth Thomas is MP for Harrow West.