Sticks Out Like a Sore Thumb – Welcome to “The World’s Smallest Skyscraper”
Walking through downtown Wichita Falls, you’ll see a red brick structure that stands out like a sore thumb.The four-story Newby-McMahon Building (named “The World’s Smallest Skyscraper” by Ripley’s Believe It or Not!) measures little over forty feet tall and 10 feet wide, despite towering over an adjoining structure.
The internal proportions are, to put it mildly, cramped: 118 square feet per level. In a nutshell, it’s an elevated elevator shaft. It’s also a cautionary story and a less-than-stellar illustration of what happens when individuals let their greed get the best of them.
The structure’s history begins in 1912, when a massive petroleum reserve was discovered west of Burkburnett, a tiny town in Wichita County, Texas.
People began pouring into the region in search of work almost immediately, and the neighboring townships grew into boomtowns. It didn’t take long for Wichita County citizens to become green.
Wichita Falls, the county seat, reaped significant benefits. However, the city was unprepared for the inflow, and because office space was scarce, commercial transactions had to take place on street corners in temporary tents.
The Newby building stood on the intersection of Seventh and La Salle Streets, near the railway depot in downtown Wichita Falls, named after the man who erected it: Augustus Newby, director of the Wichita Falls and Oklahoma City Railway Company.
J.D. McMahon, of the oil-rig construction business J.D. McMahon, a tenant in that building, saw the people and money streaming into the city and determined that a new high-rise annex was needed to supply much-needed downtown office space.
And he had just the man for the job: J.D. McMahon. He drew up drawings for a luxury building and showed them to possible investors, who loved what they saw and agreed to fund McMahon’s proposal. In total, he would receive $200,000 (about $2,800,000 in today’s money). He decided to keep everything “in-house,” so he built the structure with his own workforce.
As everything began to fall into place in 1919, it became evident that something was wrong. The structure didn’t appear to be a skyscraper at all. McMahon, who had promised a 480-foot edifice, was erecting a 480-inch structure.
How was this ever possible? When the slick con guy showed the drawings to his investors, he didn’t specify that the scale of the structure was measured in inches, not feet — and investors, ready to sign off on the exciting idea, simply didn’t notice the double apostrophes.
To make matters worse, McMahon never received permission from the property’s owner, who lived in Oklahoma, to construct on the parcel.
By the time the investors discovered they had been duped, McMahon had fled town, taking their money with him and leaving Wichita Falls citizens with an unfinished office building
Angry that they had been duped, the investors launched a lawsuit, forcing the unscrupulous flimflam guy into court. Although the judge was sympathetic, he couldn’t do anything. McMahon had built according to the designs approved by his investors.
After all, he never stated that the structure would be 480 feet tall. Wichita Falls residents were not only left with a shortened structure but also with a four-story structure with no stairs. (The team who was supposed to build it backed out.) Climbing a ladder was the only method to reach the building’s upper three levels. Years later, narrow staircases would take up a fourth of the floor space.
To put it mildly, the Newby-McMahon Building was a disgrace to the city. Initially, six desks were jammed into the bottom level, one for each of the six enterprises that occupied the building as founding tenants.
However, during most of the 1920s, the building housed only two businesses. The oil boom that generated the disaster in the first place stopped a few years after the structure was finished, and the Great Depression followed.
The structure was boarded up, a melancholy reminder of happier days. The economy eventually recovered, and the building was occupied by a variety of tenants, including a barbershop and many eateries.
The weird little Newby-McMahon Building has gone through a lot over the years, including a tornado in 2003 (which took down part of the brick wall), a fire, and many demolition efforts.
However, the city’s citizens, who have grown fond of the location, have resisted efforts to demolish it. The City Council approved $25,000 in funding for the building’s rehabilitation in 2005. True, it is a reminder of the oil boom’s greed and gullibility, but The World’s Littlest Skyscraper is getting some love.