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.

 
 
 
 

Airport 3:0: How smart technologies are transforming air travel

A growing number of airports use self check-in desks like these. Image: Getty.

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The past: the small, local airport

Welcome to College Park, Maryland: population, 30,000.

In the mid 19th century, the University of Maryland had been established here – but it was Wilbur Wright, an inventor and the pioneer of aviation, who made the city famous. For it was in College Park that, on 7 October 1909, the Wright Type A biplane was assembled. For this reason, the College Park Airport (KCGS) is still known as the "Cradle of Aviation.”

While it still remains an active airport, after over 100 years, it’s mostly a historical curiosity today. Initially, the field was cleared of brush and a small temporary hangar was erected. But as airports began to offer standard infrastructure and services – check-in gates, boarding area, limited retail and food outlets – this temporary structure soon evolved into something we’d recognise as a traditional airport.

Typically, like the railway stations established at the same time, these smaller airports operate on the so-called landlord model, with an owner and a concession operator. But the problem with such a model is that it was unable to live up to passenger expectations. It’s like flying from Beauvais airport near Paris rather than Charles de Gaulle, or from any other low cost carrier terminal: it might be technically OK, but the experience is far from memorable.

The traditional airport means a small airport with limited facilities. While they were business effective, they didn’t pay much attention to passengers.

The present: the global hub

In January 2009, one hundred year after the establishment of the College Park Airport, the UK government announced that it supported the expansion of Heathrow Airport, to include a third runway and sixth terminal building.

Heathrow is UK’s only global hub airport, and the largest international airport in the country, serving 180 destinations in 90 countries. It’s one of those airports known for their services, great customer experience and enormous business opportunities.

Over 202 out of the UK’s top 300 company HQs are within a 25‑mile radius of Heathrow. This is also an important spot for many Comarch’s clients, including Thomas Cook and BP. New technologies and practical facilities make Heathrow one of the world’s top airports according to the airline customers, too.

So what makes Heathrow so special? Among the most important things are broadband wireless internet, IP telephony, modern video systems, a wide range of well-known shops and restaurants, special events like live music in the terminal buildings, and complimentary stylist-trained shopping assistance. This is why Heathrow adopted the slogan, “Making every journey better”.

One key to the success of Heathrow’s modernisation has been the smart use of new technologies. The “Heathrow Rewards” airport shopping loyalty programme, for example, is based largely on a stable and developing relationship with Comarch – and has enabled businesses at the airport to benefit from a 14 per cent increase in spend per visit. Now program members spend £49 more per visit than non-members.

Moreover, the programme’s operating expenditures have been reduced by 2.5 per cent – despite a 64 per cent growth in membership, and a 27 per cent increase in the number of transactions it covers. Heathrow understands that a reliable technology partner means competitive market prices, without the need to expensively maintain its own IT infrastructure and resources.


The future: the smart aerotropolis

Imagine you’re approaching the airport in a comfortable express train. You’ve already checked the bag at the railway station in the city center: you don’t have to think about that anymore. You know that the train will arrive on time, and that boarding will start in 95 minutes. Your coworker who is traveling by car has already previewed available parking spaces and used an exclusive “members only” offer.

As you are approaching the terminal, your mobile sends you a push notification with your flight details and average waiting time in the security area. Thanks to location-based services and beacon technology, local merchandisers can provide you with special dedicated offers – not to mention loyalty points, both from your carrier (e.g. Avios or air miles), and additional airport program.

Smart passengers are more satisfied with multi-partner loyalty programs such as Thanks Again. Oh, wait: did you forget your child’s favorite candy? Beacons and your smartphone will remind you about such basic things from your checklist, and help you to make someone happy.

The airports of the future will fully exploit the power of new technologies, including sensors, processors, mobile apps, gamification and behavioral analytics. The key is a broad integration process among airlines, retailers, restaurants, cafes and parking facilities. In this model, airports can cross-sell and up-sell to the passengers.

It is a common view in the aviation industry that non-aeronautical income – from parking, retail, real estate, advertising, restaurants, cafes and other concessionaires – will be more and more important in the years to come. Airports, as we all know them, are very likely to be replaced with airport cities (aerotropolis) of the future.

Smart Cities cannot exist without Smart Airports – but Smart Airports also needs Smart Cities. That is why the integration with surrounding urban area, and good relationships with transport authorities and local business is so important.

The entire region can benefit from a smart strategy. What will be the first example of such an airport? It will depend on you.

Vincenzo Sinibaldi is a business development manager at Comarch Italy.

Comarch has more than 20 years of experience in helping global companies to achieve higher profitability, and understands the importance of changes taking place in contemporary cities. Its state-of-the art technologies, geolocation with micro-navigation, multi-channel access to the Internet and the growing needs of users, have made it both possible and necessary for the firm to design a comprehensive solution that combines an individual approach to clients, strategic planning and advanced analytical capabilities.

The Smart City concept is based on the company’s past experiences: from loyalty systems, electronic data interchange and sales support, to IT and “Internet of Things” infrastructure and other advanced uses of technology in business. Designing tools for generic location-based services and developing smart strategies are the priorities for every implementation.

Thanks to this, Comarch Smart City can create an integrated space where the experiences and needs of users are linked with events from the participating institutions, including public transportation authorities, city councils and other private partners, regardless of their business profile.

You can find out more here.