The World's Littlest Skyscraper

Wichita Falls, Texas


 

 

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The Newby-McMahon Building, commonly referred to as the world’s littlest skyscraper, is located at 701 LaSalle Street (on the corner of Seventh and LaSalle Streets) in downtown Wichita Falls, Texas. This late Neoclassical style red brick and cast stone structure is 40 ft tall, and its exterior dimensions are 18 ft deep and 10 ft wide. Its interior dimensions are approximately 12 ft by 9 ft, or approximately 108 sq ft. Steep, narrow, internal stairways leading to the upper floors occupy roughly 25 percent of the interior area.

Reportedly the result of a fraudulent investment scheme by a confidence man, the Newby-McMahon Building was a source of great embarrassment to the city and its residents after its completion in 1919. During the 1920s, the Newby-McMahon Building was featured in Robert Ripley's Ripley's Believe It or Not! syndicated column as "the world's littlest skyscraper", a sobriquet that has stuck with it ever since. The Newby-McMahon Building is now part of the Depot Square Historic District of Wichita Falls, which has been declared a Texas Historic Landmark.

A large petroleum reservoir was discovered just west of the city of Burkburnett, a small town in Wichita County, Texas in 1912. Burkburnett and its surrounding communities became boomtowns, experiencing explosive growth of their populations and economies. By 1918, approximately 20,000 new settlers had taken up residence around the lucrative oil field, and many Wichita County residents became wealthy virtually overnight. As people streamed into the local communities in search of high-paying jobs, the nearby city of Wichita Falls began to grow in importance. Though it initially lacked the necessary infrastructure for this sudden increase in economic and industrial activity, Wichita Falls was a natural choice to serve as the local logistical hub, being the seat of Wichita County. Because office space was lacking, major stock transactions and mineral rights deals were conducted on street corners and in tents that served as makeshift headquarters for the new oil companies.

The Newby-McMahon Building is a one-story brick building located near the railroad depot in downtown Wichita Falls, built in 1906 by Augustus Newby (1855–1909), a director of the Wichita Falls and Oklahoma City Railway Company. The oil-rig construction firm of J.D. McMahon, a petroleum landman and structural engineer from Philadelphia, was one of seven tenants whose offices were based in the original Newby Building. According to local legend, when McMahon announced in 1919 that he would build a high-rise annex to the Newby Building as a solution to the newly wealthy city's urgent need for office space, investors were eager to seize the opportunity to become even wealthier.

McMahon collected $200,000 in investment capital from this group of naïve investors, promising to construct a high-rise office building across the street from the St. James Hotel. The proposed skyscraper depicted in the blueprints that he distributed was clearly labeled as being 480" tall and consisting of four floors. McMahon is said to have neglected to mention that the scale of his blueprints was in inches rather than feet.

McMahon used his own construction crews to build the McMahon Building on the small, unused piece of property next to the Newby Building, without obtaining prior consent from the owner of the property, who lived in Oklahoma. As the building began to take shape, the investors realized they had been swindled into purchasing a four-story edifice that was only 40 ft tall, rather than the 480 ft structure they were expecting. At that time, the 792 ft Woolworth Building in New York City was the tallest building in the world. They brought a lawsuit against McMahon, but to their dismay, the real estate and construction deal was declared legally binding by a local judge. As McMahon had built exactly according to the blueprints they'd signed off on, there was to be no legal remedy for the deceived investors. They did recover a small portion of their investment from the elevator company, which refused to honor the contract after they learned of the confidence trick. There was no stairway installed in the building upon its initial completion, as none was included in the original blueprints. Rather, a ladder was employed to gain access to the upper three floors. By the time construction was complete, McMahon had left Wichita Falls and perhaps even Texas, taking with him the balance of the investors' money.

Upon its completion and opening in 1919, the Newby-McMahon Building was an immediate source of great embarrassment to the city and its residents. The ground floor had six desks representing the six different companies that occupied the building as its original tenants. Throughout most of the 1920s, the building housed only two firms. During the 1920s, the Newby-McMahon Building was featured in Robert Ripley's Ripley's Believe It or Not! syndicated column as "the world's littlest skyscraper," which is a name that has stuck with it ever since.

The oil industry would ultimately prove to be a resource curse to Wichita Falls, and the Texas Oil Boom ended only a few years later. The building was vacated, boarded up, and virtually forgotten in 1929 as the Great Depression struck North Texas and office space became relatively inexpensive to lease or purchase. A fire gutted the building in 1931, rendering it unusable for a number of years.

After the Great Depression, the building housed a succession of tenants, including barber shops and cafés. The building changed hands many times and was scheduled for demolition on several occasions, but escaped this fate apparently because a sufficient number of local residents came to its defense. It was eventually deeded to the city of Wichita Falls. As the building continued to deteriorate, in 1986 the city gave the building to the Wichita County Heritage Society (WCHS), with the hope that it would eventually be restored, making it a viable part of the Depot Square Historic District.

By 1999, the Newby-McMahon Building had proved to be an excessive burden on the limited capital reserves of the WCHS. The following year, the city council hired the local architectural firm of Bundy, Young, Sims & Potter to stabilize the crumbling structure, amid steadily growing talk of demolishing the building. Dick Bundy and his partners became fascinated with the history and legacy of the building; they arranged a partnership with Marvin Groves Electric, another local business, to purchase the building. In December of 2000, the city council voted to allow the WCHS to sell the building to Marvin Groves for $3,748.

On June 11, 2003, a storm swept through Wichita Falls, bringing gusts of wind as strong as 97 mph. A 15-foot section of brick wall from the McMahon Building complex was knocked down. The damage from this storm was repaired, but full restoration of the building and the adjacent Newby Building was delayed until late 2005. In June of that year, the City Council granted $25,000 in funds from the city's Tax Increment Financing Fund, to be invested in the restoration of the McMahon Building. Restoration of the building is estimated to have cost more than $254,000, the remainder of which was paid by the owners (Bundy, Young, Sims & Potter, Inc. and Marvin Groves Electric).

With the passage of time, the Newby-McMahon Building has become a monument to a long-gone era. It has survived tornadoes, a fire, and decades of neglect to stand as a monument to the greed, graft, and gullibility of the oil boom days of North Texas. The building is currently part of the Depot Square Historic District of Wichita Falls, which has been declared a Texas Historic Landmark. The building has never met the criteria for the definition of a skyscraper, nor even that of a "high-rise" building. Aside from serving as a local tourist attraction, the building is home to an antiques dealership, The Antique Wood, which opened in 2006 on the ground floor. The third floor has been converted into an artist's studio.

The Newby-McMahon Building is among several historic buildings featured in the documentary film Wichita Falls: The Future of Our Past, a retrospective analysis of the city's architectural past produced in 2006 by Barry Levy, a public information officer with the city of Wichita Falls.

If you like shopping for antiques or just browsing, you will love this place. The current owners of the antique store can provide you with more history of the building, as well as, a free tour of the three-story ("you better read the fine print of the blueprints" building. They also have some fantastic collectables available.

I was stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls for a few months while going to technical school. The area is very interesting. It has a lot of attractions to keep you busy and is centrally located between Dallas and Oklahoma City.

If you plan to visit Wichita Falls, you might want to seriously look at NOT going during the summer months. To give you an idea of how hot it gets, they have an annual bicycle race called "Hotter'N Hell Hundred" held in August. Approximately 10,000 to 14,000 riders participate each year, making the Hotter'N Hell Hundred the largest sanctioned century bicycle ride in the country.

Beautiful area--just pick a non-summer time.

   

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