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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London planning world's longest urban trampoline

Londoners! City life getting you down? Morning commute feeling somehow flat, and devoid of joy?

Despair no longer! This just in from Transport for London:

The Bounceway will be the world's longest urban trampoline. This iconic and inclusive new public space in the heart of London will boost fitness and fun, and provide a novel form of transport where the journey is the main event...

I know what you’re thinking (we were thinking it too). But no, this does in fact seem to be a real thing. The Bounceway is one of 10 projects picked to receive funding from the £1.8m “Future Streets Incubator” fund – which, in not so many words, is intended to experiment with cool stuff that doesn't cost much money.

This one's happening with the help of the non-profit Architecture for Humanity and the “international cross disciplinary design group” Warmbaby. The latter has put up a Tumblr, which helpfully expands on the concept:

The Bounce Way [sic] is a linear stretch of trampoline embedded in the ground which provides an alternative environmentally friendly form of transport. The pedestrian will bounce, jump and spring forward. It’s a novel solution to the boredom of the morning commute. It will contribute to the wellbeing of Londoners and visitors to the capital. It’s socially inclusive, a new way to keep fit. Anyone can bounce. And it’s fun.

We’re not entirely convinced that this is an adequate replacement for, say, Crossrail. But, to be fair, it does indeed look fun - although, you do kind of wonder what's to stop someone bouncing off and smacking their face on the distinctly non-bouncy asphalt. Still, these fictitious people seem to be enjoying themselves:

It's clearly early days yet: those pictures suggest they've not even picked a site, and TfL says that any trial of the technology will be “part-funded by a crowdfunding campaign set to launch in late 2014”. Despite this suggestion of a whole new division for TfL, the taxpayer will not be spending millions on its new trampoline:

As to what else is included in the Future Streets Incubator programme, it’s a mixture of the artistic and the practical:

  • Cloud Consolidator (Fitzrovia Partenrship) – using an online purchasing system, to help businesses share lorry space and so cut the number of HGVs on the roads;
  • Parklets (Team London Bridge & the London Borough of Ealing) – turning parking bays in west London into, well, parks;
  • Simultaneous Green (London Borough of Richmond upon Thames) - a trial of a new traffic light system, which can detect cyclists at crossings and give them all green lights at once. Hence, we assume, the name.

You can see the full list here.

All images courtesy of Warmbaby.

 
 
 
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