Sticks Out Like a Sore Thumb – Welcome to “The World’s Smallest Skyscraper”

Strolling around downtown Wichita Falls, you can’t miss this conspicuous red brick building that stands out like a sore thumb. It’s called the Newby-McMahon Building, but it’s famously known as “The World’s Smallest Skyscraper” according to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! This four-story structure is barely forty feet tall and just 10 feet wide, even though it looms over the neighboring building.

Inside, things are pretty cramped – each level measures only 118 square feet. In simple terms, it’s like an elevated elevator shaft. The building’s story is a bit of a cautionary tale, showing what can happen when greed takes control.

The tale of the Newby-McMahon Building dates back to 1912 when a huge oil reserve was found near Burkburnett, a small town in Wichita County, Texas. People rushed to the area for work, and nearby towns grew into bustling places. The citizens of Wichita County also got caught up in the excitement.

Wichita Falls, the county’s main city, enjoyed the benefits, but it wasn’t prepared for the influx. With limited office space, business deals had to be made on street corners under makeshift tents. The Newby building stood at the intersection of Seventh and La Salle Streets, close to the downtown Wichita Falls railway depot. It was named after Augustus Newby, the director of the Wichita Falls and Oklahoma City Railway Company.

J.D. McMahon, who ran an oil rig construction business, was a tenant in this building. He saw the city filling up with people and money and realized there was a need for more office space. So, he proposed building a new high-rise annex.

And guess who was up for the job? J.D. McMahon himself. He designed a fancy building, showed it to potential investors, and they loved it. They agreed to fund the project, giving him a whopping $200,000 (equivalent to about $2,800,000 today). McMahon decided to keep everything in-house and used his own workers to build the structure.

But in 1919, when everything was falling into place, something seemed off. The building didn’t look like a skyscraper at all. McMahon had promised a 480-foot tall building, but what was going up was just 480 inches tall.

How did this happen? When McMahon presented the drawings to his investors, he conveniently forgot to mention that the measurements were in inches, not feet. The eager investors didn’t catch the mistake, and they signed off on the idea. To make matters worse, McMahon never got permission from the actual property owner, who lived in Oklahoma, to build on the land.

By the time the investors realized they’d been fooled, McMahon had skipped town, taking their money with him and leaving Wichita Falls with an incomplete office building. The angry investors sued, dragging McMahon into court. The judge sympathized but couldn’t do much since McMahon had built exactly what the investors had approved.

So, the Newby-McMahon Building wasn’t just short in stature, it was also missing stairs to the upper three levels. Climbing a ladder was the only way to get there initially. Later on, they squeezed in narrow staircases.

In short, the building was a disgrace to the city. It started with six desks on the first level for the six initial tenants. However, during most of the 1920s, only two businesses occupied the building. The oil boom that led to its creation had fizzled out, and the Great Depression followed suit.

The building was abandoned, a sad reminder of better times. Eventually, things picked up, and it housed various businesses like a barbershop and eateries. Over the years, the Newby-McMahon Building has endured a lot – a tornado in 2003, a fire, and several attempts at demolition. But the city’s residents, who’ve developed an attachment to it, have resisted its destruction.

In 2005, the City Council even allocated $25,000 for its restoration. Yes, it’s a reminder of the greed and gullibility during the oil boom, but people are showing this “World’s Littlest Skyscraper” some genuine affection.

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