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.

 
 
 
 

15 other things ministers could move to London to boost the Northern Powerhouse

The Angel of the North. Wouldn't it look better in, say, Camden? Image: Getty.

Yesterday brought confirmation that the government had come up with a clever way of boosting its flagship “Northern Powerhouse” policy: move over 200 government jobs to London.

From the Mirror:

The Tories sneaked out a plan to move 228 jobs in the Northern Powerhouse department from Sheffield to London today, on the last day before Parliament breaks for recess.

And the department today suggested staff who want to keep their jobs could commute the two-hour each way journey from the North to the capital.

(...)

The plan, described as “madness” by Nick Clegg, will see the Department for Business Innovation and Skills’ (BIS) Sheffield office shuttered in 2018.

This is not the first time large chunks of public investment has quietly been shifted from the north to London, even as ministers repeat the words “Northern Powerhouse” in a convincing tone of voice. Remember the decision to move the National Photography Collection from Bradford to London?

It’s easy to sneer. But actually, there are some very clever and compelling arguments for gradually moving every job in Britain into the area enclosed by the M25. Larger cities, after all, are more productive. It stands to reason, then, that a country in which all economic activity took place in a single, high-rise postcode would be far richer, happier, and, well, better than the one we’ve got at the moment. 

That probably isn’t realistic. What might be, however, is gradually shifting all the north’s myriad attractions to new locations in the Home Counties. For that reason, CityMetric understands that ministers are considering relocating a number of other key economic assets to the south of England. 

The Yorkshire Dales – As things stand, England’s “landscape capital” has been disproportionately concentrated in the north. To rectify this, Her Majesty’s Government will explore plans to redistribute the Dales to southern Essex.

Alnwick Castle – Following the very successful experiment in which we moved Leeds Castle to Kent, we’ve found a very promising site for Alnwick just outside Hove.

Betty’s of Harrogate – We believe this charming tea room would do far better business somewhere in the vicinity of Park Lane. 

The Angel of the North – The iconic Antony Gormley statue is currently going to waste on a slight incline next to the A1, on the outskirts of an obscure place called Gateshead. It would attract far more visitors if we placed it instead on, say, Primrose Hill. The best thing about this plan is that we wouldn’t even have to rename it.


The Cavern – To improve Liverpool’s tourism figures, we will be consolidating its main attractions into the new “Abbey Road Experience”.

The rest of Harrogate – Bit confused they didn’t put it in Oxfordshire in the first place, actually.

Salford Quays – Moving chunks of BBC Production to Greater Manchester has been very successful. Her Majesty’s Government is keen to build on this success: we the best way of doing so would be to consolidate operations and seek efficiencies by re-locating the whole of Salford Quays to London. An ideal site has been located in the White City area.

Tate Liverpool – The present site is far too inconvenient. A new site, closer to the Tate Britain, would be ideal.

The University of Durham – It’s in a picturesque medieval town, it’s broken into colleges, it has a boat race... The perm sec was a bit surprised to find it wasn’t in the Home Counties already, if we’re honest.

While we’re at it:

The University of York – See above.

Coronation Street – The problem with this show is that it’s set in Manchester. It’s just so bloody dreary, isn’t it? All that rain; all those cobbles. They should set it in London. Make something more cheerful, like Eastenders.

Hadrian's Wall, in its original location. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

Hadrian’s Wall – The wall was constructed during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian to protect proper Britain from the savage Scots. Today, though, there are no fewer than 54 Scottish Nationalists in the House of Commons. This suggests that, if we’re going to bother with such defensive measures, we’re going to need them a damn sight closer to the capital than they are at the moment. 

The Settle to Carlisle line – I mean, it’s a lovely route, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. It’d almost certainly get more passengers if it ran from, say, Euston to Milton Keynes.

Pies – Treasury cost/benefit analysis suggests that large quantities of carbs and gravy would be used more efficiently in the south. 

Northerners – We considered moving the jobs to the people, but decided this way round would work better. Great for house prices, too!

Please note that Her Majesty’s Government has abandoned plans to incentivise Manchester United to move south. But we are hoping to tempt Leicester City to a new home in Surrey.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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