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.


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.

newby mcmahon.jpg

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.


Welfare reform could price tenants out of social housing

A social housing block in London. (Not one of Flagship's.) Image: Getty.

Flagship Homes, a social housing provider working in the East of England, has been researching its tenants finances. These are the results.

House prices are increasing in comparison to wages, meaning it’s harder and harder to afford a home. Currently, in the East of England, someone wanting to own their own home has to spend or borrow over nine times their salary – a figure that’s predicted to increase to over 10 times by 2020.

Estimates put the need for new homes in England at between 230,000 and 300,000 per year – yet last year only 140 thousand were completed. At the same time, the supply of social housing is reducing and the unregulated private rental market is booming: for the first time since the 1960s, there are more people in England renting from private landlords than from councils or housing associations. And to top it all off, in the last 12 months, private rental prices increased across the country.

The second largest rental price increase was in the East of England – the region that, outside London, is projected to see the fastest population growth over the next 10 years.

Our purpose – the reason we exist at Flagship – is to provide homes for people in need. And in such a fragile operating environment, it seemed appropriate to understand whether the homes we provide are affordable, for those that need them.

So, in 2015, we commissioned Sheffield Hallam University to assess the affordability of our housing products. We had a fantastic customer response – more than 2,600, which is about a 13 per cent response rate.

We took a truly unique approach to this research. Whilst traditional affordability studies focus purely on the financials – income vs expenditure – we examined people’s perceptions of what they could afford, and what they could not.

There were six key findings from the research:

Our rents are set at appropriate levels for most customers. The cost of rent was not a common reason for difficulties in paying rent – although this is to be expected with roughly half of customers who are in receipt of either full or partial housing benefit. It was clear that unexpected expenses, increases in outgoings and decreases in income were the main reasons why customers experience financial difficulty.

Just 6 per cent of our customers had a rent that they couldn’t afford – but a further 32 per cent were at risk of not being able to afford their rent. Being in the "at risk" group means that any negative change to financial circumstances, such as further welfare reforms, or unexpected expenses, would mean that rent would become unaffordable.

When customers run out of money, the most common reaction is to cut back on spending. Only 13 per cent of customers said they could manage using existing income if their expenses were to increase by £10 per week. Interestingly, money management skills were not the cause of unaffordable rent for most customers: the majority reported being very organised at managing their money.

Our customers prioritise paying their rent over paying other bills – their rent is the last bastion of their financial stewardship. So once our customers are in arrears, this is a sign that something is wrong with all their finances, not just their rent.

There's little demand for right to buy. Results from the survey suggest that only 3 per cent (600) of Flagship customers are likely to take up the voluntary Right to Buy.

The research gave an insight into which of our customers would be affected by forthcoming welfare reforms – for example, the cap in social housing and tax credits reforms. Working age households who have no adults in full time work are likely to be the most affected.

What now?

We previously had limited information on how affordable our products were. The data has confirmed to us that some of our customers have real affordability issues, and these are only going to get worse as welfare reforms start to bite.

This research has equipped us with a fantastic array of raw data from which to work with. It’s helped us understand the socio-demographic makeup of our customers in more detail than ever before, and has aided us in modelling the impact of recent policy changes, such as pay to stay.

We are also using Microsoft’s power BI, essentially a simple way of displaying data so that it makes sense to create a tool for our housing officers to identify potentially vulnerable customers – with the intention of catching any financial difficulty before it becomes a problem.

It was important for us that the research was an independent analysis of how affordable our housing products are. It contains six recommendations from the team at Sheffield Hallam – these are now being considered by Flagship’s in-house welfare reform and universal credit action group.

We’re already trialling an affordability calculator with new customers, to ensure they have sufficient income to afford the property allocated to them, and we continue to signpost to support agencies where appropriate.

Sam Greenacre is head of communication at Flagship Housing.

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