Day 437: Skyscraper Lite

originally published March 12, 2013

The humble town of Wichita Falls, Texas, with a  population just over 103,000, has a somewhat unusual past. First of all, the actual falls after which the town was named were destroyed in a flood in 1886, just fourteen years after the town was founded. They had to build an artificial simulation almost a century later because they were tired of tourists showing up to see the falls that didn’t exist.

But today’s article isn’t about that. Nor is it about the 1964 tornado that slashed through the town and killed seven people. It’s not about “Terrible Tuesday” in 1979, when thirty tornadoes spun around the region, killing 45, injuring 1800 and leaving over 20,000 people homeless. No, today I’m writing about a different chapter in the wonky history of Wichita Falls.

This is the story of the world’s littlest skyscraper. And it all begins with the fanciful verbiage and slick persuasive skills of one man.

Wichita Falls’ first forty years were rather unspectacular, apart from that flood that killed their namesake. But in 1912, a huge cache of oil was discovered just west of nearby Burkburnett. Within five years, every town in the county became a boomtown; people flocked to the region, hoping to cash in on the local black gold. Texas tea. You get the point.

By 1918, around 20,000 new settlers had elbowed their way into Wichita County, while the average tax bracket soared to somewhere in the HolyCraposphere. It was a good time to be in Wichita Falls, and the city began to balloon in importance. It grew in size also, but not fast enough to keep up. While fresh new oil companies sprung up like crabgrass in the city, there simply wasn’t enough office space to contain them all. Mineral rights deals were being carried out in makeshift tents or on crowded street corners.

Wichita Falls needed something big. It needed its own skyscraper.

In the late 1910’s, New York’s exquisite Woolworth Building was the tallest building in the world, at 792 feet. The tallest building in Texas at the time was the paltry 312-foot Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. A man by the name of J.D. McMahon proposed to shatter the skies with a  480-foot giant with enough office space to meet the growing demand, and the opportunity to transform the downtown neighborhood around the train depot into a bustling city center.

McMahon was presently one of seven tenants in the one-story Newby building. His offer was to annex the land immediately adjacent to his offices, and to build up from there. Blueprints were drawn up, and eager investors who were dying for an actual office with an actual desk upon which they could do an actual secretary were throwing money at McMahon faster than he could count it.

There was no need to rile the town into a spending frenzy with a choreographed sing-along, nor did McMahon need to show off his resume of all the successful highrises he’d helped to build in Ogdenville, North Haverbrook and Brockway. The money was there for the taking – $200,000 of it, which works out to about $2.6 million in today’s money. McMahon was going to be the hero of the city. And this is what he built:

J.D. McMahon employed his own crew for the construction of this towering skyscraper. It didn’t take long for the investors to realize they had just spent $200,000 on a four-story building, and a tiny one at that. They looked at the blueprints again. Turns out they missed one tiny detail. McMahon clearly wrote down that the building was to be 480” tall. That’s two little tick-marks, not one. True to his word, the building was 480 inches high – about forty feet.

It gets worse. When the investors sued McMahon, the judge looked at what was agreed to, and ruled in McMahon’s favor. This was certainly a swindle, but a swindle of words. When it came to ink-on-paper, the contracts signed were all completely honored by McMahon. Perhaps they should have been a bit more careful in their reading, and noticed that McMahon spent a lot of time laughing maniacally and twirling his waxed moustache. Naturally, he had skipped town before the building was completed.

The investors recouped a bit of their money when the elevator company backed out of the job. Sure, that’s a plus – except the blueprints didn’t call for any stairs. A ladder was brought in to be used for access to the top three floors. Seriously. A friggin’ ladder. A stairwell was eventually installed, but it wound up taking up 25% of the floor space.

Each floor is about 108 square feet: roughly 12 feet wide by nine feet deep. Not quite enough room for an oil company’s headquarters, but you could fit a desk in there. Maybe a small potted plant.

Only two firms called the Newby-McMahon Building home during the 1920’s. This was just as well, as the north Texas oil boom receded just as quickly as it had arrived, and by the time the Great Depression hit, the building was boarded up and abandoned. A 1931 fire left the building unusable.

But wait… must this story have a sad ending? Of course not! Let’s give it a weird one.

Tenants drifted in and out of the Newby-McMahon Building once it had been repaired from the fire, including cafés and barber shops. It was slated for demolition several times, but local residents had grown fond of the building. These were probably not the direct descendants of the original investors, mind you. But ultimately the building was meant to be saved.

The Wichita County Heritage Society tried to restore the thing, but it proved to be too expensive. Finally, Marvin Groves Electric – a local business – picked up the deed and restored the building to its… I want to say glory?

The Newby-McMahon Building is now protected for life, with a slot in the National Register of Historic Places. There’s an antique store on the ground floor and the third floor has been turned into an artist’s studio. Not sure about the other two floors, though if I were to guess I’d say one’s a change room and the other is a vending machine. There isn’t room for much else.

So the swindle has been elevated to a tourist attraction. Not much is known about J.D. McMahon after he skipped town (he has no Wikipedia page), but I’m thinking somebody better send a warning out to Shelbyville. He might go after them next.

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