The World’s Littlest Skyscraper
While the Burj Khalifa has been able to retain its position as the world’s tallest building since 2008, with the completion of the Jeddah Tower it will lose this honour, just as many other towers have been outstripped and overshadowed. While New York City’s Flatiron, Singer and Woolworth buildings, constructed in this First Great Age period, remain iconic in their hometown, they have lost their places in the record books. However, one tower from this time of iconic skyscrapers, in Wichita Falls, a small Texan town, has managed to hold onto its own particular title for almost a century.
In 1912 a large petroleum reservoir was discovered in Wichita County west of the town of Burkburnett. Many surrounding communities, including Wichita Falls, became boomtowns, with Wichita Falls in particular becoming a logistical centre, housing many oil company offices. As the need for more office space grew, in 1919 a local petroleum landman and structural engineer, JD McMahon, expressed his desire to attach a high-rise annexe to the existing Newby Building. At this point the need for office space was so extreme that stock transactions and mineral rights deals were said to have been conducted in tents and on street corners; as a result, local investors were understandably keen to invest in such a project. McMahon soon collected $200,000 (US $2.8 million in 2017).
As the annexe began to rise, investors soon realised that their high rise wasn’t going to be that high after all – rather than the expected 480 feet (146 metres), the tower was to reach a height of 480 inches (12 metres), comprising four floors. The investors quickly brought a lawsuit against McMahon; however, while McMahon had certainly managed to swindle the investors out of their money, he had done so legally. The expected height of 480 feet was never mentioned by McMahon, and the distributed blueprints, which were approved by the investors, clearly depicted a four-storey, 480-inch-tall building. The Newby-McMahon Building was soon completed, without its owner to oversee the finishing details; McMahon, and his money, had quickly left Wichita Falls.
The world’s littlest skyscraper, as it was named in the 1920s by ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not’, went on to be a source of embarrassment to the town and its population, and has not enjoyed a particularly prosperous history.1 The 1920s saw only two occupants in the building – its lack of desirability clearly affected by its embarrassing status and also by the fact that upper storeys were accessible only by a ladder. The elevator firm originally hired pulled out of the deal on moral grounds, and the blueprints had not included staircases. The building fell out of use completely in the Great Depression, and in 1931 a fire rendered the building uninhabitable for a number of years. Although it was occupied by a variety of businesses from the middle of the 20th century, the building itself continued to deteriorate, and at the end of the century talk of demolishing the building was steadily growing.
A local architectural firm recognised the historic importance of the building, and arranged for its purchase by another local business, and in 2005 the tower underwent extensive restorations. The Newby-McMahon Building is now part of the Depot Square Historic District of Wichita Falls, which has been designated as a Texas Historic Landmark, and it is listed on the National Register. The World’s Littlest Skyscraper, once a source of embarrassment to its home town, now serves as an icon of the Wichita Falls, a symbol of endurance and resilience in the face of con-men, economic downturns, natural disasters, and just plain bad luck.
- 1. Stacy Conradt, ‘The World’s Littlest Skyscraper’, http://mentalfloss.com/article/66851/worlds-littlest-skyscraper