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.

 
 
 
 

Patently obvious: Which European cities are the most inventive?

Regensburg, Germany – Pretty, inventive, and pretty inventive. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data to crunch some of the numbers on Europe’s cities.

Europe is quite a nice place. Though Nigel Farage, the Conservative Party, and anyone who’s noticed that the second syllable of Remain sounds a bit like moan will tell you otherwise, there’s some pretty nice stuff there.

The continent is host to three of the world’s richest countries in absolute terms – France, Germany, and Italy. And if you look at the top twenty countries in terms of national wealth per person – aka GDP per capita – then Europe fills more than half the spots, with twelve entries from Luxembourg in pole position to Belgium in 20th place.  Poland was one of the fastest-growing countries in the world last year. Good for you, Poland.

Croissants are tasty, Belgian beer is part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (apparently), and obscenely beautiful cathedrals are dotted around all over the place. In the extremely dubious language of good old-fashioned colonialism, Europe is the Old World – cultural crucible of the planet, Michelangelo, 1066 and all that.

But you probably don't think of Europe as the great 21st century hive of ingenuity, invention, and world-leading technology. Your mind might instead wander to the sprawling Californian campuses of Facebook and Google; the crammed and jostling skyscraper-shrunken streets of Hong Kong, Jakarta, and Shanghai; the ghostly-white-walled robot laboratories of Japan.

While you’re not wrong on that, you’re not necessarily right either – and looking at the numbers of patent applications to the European Patent Office will tell you that Europe remains a hub of inventive activity.

The first thing you’ll notice is that Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, is really really really inventive.

Eindhoven in Bavaria wait no that's a café the Netherlands. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The data comes rom 2011, when there were roughly 250 patent applications per 100,000 people. That might not sound like a lot, so imagine that number differently. If you were at a very hypothetically statistically perfect school in Eindhoven with 1,000 people (discounting obvious contributory factors like post-education migration), there would be at least two people with EPO patents. Or perhaps just one very inventive person. Either way – think back to your real secondary school. How many patents have its alumni been granted? Yeah. Didn’t think so.

Eindhoven is so far out of the other cities’ league that it’s actually worth discounting it from the data to make the other figures easier to see.

Regensburg, a city with a similar population to Oxford just down the road from Nuremburg in Germany’s Bavaria, comes in second, with 83.8 applications per 100,000 people. Aachen, up near Germany’s northwestern border with the Netherlands and Belgium, follows close behind, and the prestigious university town of Heidelberg – just south of Frankfurt – narrowly takes fourth place.

This is mostly an excuse for pictures of pretty cities like Aachen. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Grenoble is the first non-Germanic entrant. The city in France’s south-east clocks 80 applications per 100,000, before the Germanic cities storm back in with Darmstadt, Zurich, and Basel in quick succession.

Grenoble, land of flying globules and mountains. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

To take a generalisation further, what’s extraordinary is that of the top 20 of these most inventive cities, only four are in countries or areas that do not speak a Germanic language. For our purposes here, I’m excluding the UK (and the English language) from that definition; Grenoble, Cambridge, Lausanne, and St Quentin en Yvelines are the only cities in the top 20 that aren’t in German, Dutch, or Swedish-speaking places.

And if you do include English as a Germanic language – which you probably should – then you’re down to Lausanne and St Quentin en Yvelines as lonely French outposts in the Germanic land of invention. Nobody wants to veer into linguistic-group stereotyping, but there’s something very Vorsprung Durch Technik going on here.

Get rid of all the Germanic-language-speaking nations included in the data (by my count: Great Britain, Germany, Germanic Switzerland, Flemish Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands) and it’s a very different picture.

France entirely dominates, taking up the first 12 entries prior to a guest appearance from Parma in Italy. Geneva slips in behind, and the Italians romp through with Bologna, Modena, and Ferrara all in the non-Germanic top ten. Weird, huh?

And for the cruel-spirited amongst you, the least inventive cities included in the data were Almería and Jerez de la Frontera in southern Spain, Taranto, Reggio di Calabria, and Palermo in southern Italy, and Czestochowa in southern Poland. Pesky southerners.

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