In Wichita Falls, Texas, there is a strange building that is four stories tall and very skinny. It sits on a corner near downtown Wichita Falls on Seventh Street and LaSalle Street, and how it got built is even stranger than the way the building looks. There is an interesting tale behind the structure that is called “The Littlest Skyscraper in the World.”
The world’s littlest skyscraper is officially called the Newby–McMahon Building. The red brick building is four stories, 10 feet wide and 16 feet long, 40 feet high, and has 118 square feet per floor.
Things started in 1906 when Gus Newby built a two-room building next to a vacant lot where the world’s littlest skyscraper would end up. Nothing happened for 13 years until Newby rented one of his rooms to six businessmen in 1919. One of those businessmen was JD McMahon, a petroleum landman from Philadelphia.
McMahon was looking for investors for a bold new project. He wanted to build a new skyscraper that had room for apartments, offices, and retail businesses, but he wouldn’t give a location where he planned to build it. He secured $200,000 in stock (about $2.9 million in today’s dollars) from investors by showing them blueprints of a massive building 480 feet high with 48 stories. People were willing to give over their new money that the area’s oil boom had brought on only years before.
Next to Newby’s building was a vacant lot that was owned by Newby’s niece, Mabel Jones, who lived in Oklahoma. One day, a construction crew and materials showed up on the site, and a building was soon constructed. It was assumed that Mabel Jones was cashing in on the need for office space because of the oil boom and that she attached her building to her Uncle’s two-room structure. But Jones had no idea the building was being constructed on her land. It was McMahon’s building, and he didn’t own the land.
But the building was odd. It was small, had only a front door, was four stories, and had two windows on the front of each floor with three windows on one side. There weren’t even any stairs in the building to get to each small floor. It wasn’t quite what investors had expected. By the time anyone realized that the building would stay a skinny, four-story structure, McMahon had skipped town and left with the investors’ money.
When the blueprints were more closely scrutinized, investors found that they had given money, not for a 480-foot high structure, but for a 480-inch high structure. The blueprints had an extra apostrophe next to each dimension, turning what they assumed was square feet into what was actually square inches.
The investors tried to sue but discovered they had no case. They had signed off on the blueprints that showed the building’s dimensions were in inches, and any effort to find McMahon to get their money back failed.
In the 1920s, the building was thought of as an embarrassment and worthless by the residents of Wichita Falls, but Robert Ripley, who wrote the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! syndicated column, supposedly gave it the title of “the world’s littlest skyscraper,” a name that stuck with it through the years.
After the oil boom ended a few years later, the building was abandoned and gutted in a fire in 1931. It escaped demolition numerous times and changed ownership multiple times before it was deeded to the city of Wichita Falls.
In 1986, the city gave over the building to the Wichita County Heritage Society with the hope of restoring it, but the costs proved to be prohibitive to the organization. The building ended up in the hands of Dick Bundy and other partners after the city hired the architectural firm of Bundy, Young, Sims & Potter to stabilize it. They remodeled the structure where today it is a tourist attraction, a Texas Historic Landmark, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. No one is quite sure whatever happened to the man that started it all, JD McMahon.
Sources: New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung, The Odessa American, Texas Co-op Power, Wichita Falls TX