The Impressive Scheme That Resulted in ‘The World’s Littlest Skyscraper’

Clare Fitzgerald
Photo Credit: Michael Barera / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0
Photo Credit: Michael Barera / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

The Newby-McMahon Building is a 40-foot tall “skyscraper” located at 701 La Salle Street in Wichita Falls, Texas. According to local legend, the building was intended to be 480 feet tall, with the aim of providing additional office space for the city’s growing petroleum industry.

Instead, a construction firm owner from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania only built it to be 480 inches in height, running away with investors’ money and inadvertently creating a tourist attraction that remains popular to this day.

Looking to expand the Newby Building

In the early 1900s, Wichita County, Texas began to experience a petroleum boom, after a reserve was discovered in the area. This led the population of Wichita Falls to more than double to well over 20,000 residents, many of whom were looking to cash in on the growing industry and economic success.

Looking up the exterior of the Newby-McMahon Building
Photo Credit: Nicolas Henderson / Flickr CC BY 2.0

In 1906, the one-story Newby Building was built by August Newby, director of the Wichita Falls and Oklahoma City Railway Company, at the corner of La Salle and Seventh streets. The building housed seven tenants, who quickly realized they needed more room. That’s when J.D. McMahon, whose construction firm occupied one of the offices, suggested an extension be added.

Construction of a 480-inch tall “skyscraper”

The history behind what became the Newby-McMahon Building is shrouded in local legend. It’s said that J.D. McMahon collected $200,000 from a group of investors, which he then used to construct a skyscraper next to the Newby Building. What they didn’t know, however, was that their funds wouldn’t be used in the way they intended.

Advertisement along the side of the Newby-McMahon Building
Photo Credit: Scribe215 / Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

McMahon used his own construction firm to erect the structure, which happened to be on a plot of land he didn’t have permission to build on. Work occurred throughout 1919, resulting in the now infamous 480-inch Neoclassical style red brick and cast stone high-rise – if it can even be called that.

Exterior of the Newby-McMahon Building
Photo Credit: Travis K. Witt / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

The McMahon Building stood at 40 feet tall, with its interior spanning just 108 square feet. No stairways were installed. There had been plans to add an elevator to the property, but that was later nixed, meaning those frequenting the structure had to climb to the upper three floors with a ladder.

Internal stairways would eventually be added to the building, but wound up occupying around 25 percent of the space, making the interior feel even smaller than it already was.

Investors filed a lawsuit against J.D. McMahon

Realizing they had been duped, the investors filed a lawsuit against J.D. McMahon, claiming he hadn’t delivered on his promise to build the 480-foot skyscraper they’d expected. The case was brought before a judge, who reviewed the legal documents and found McMahon had listed the proposed height of the structure as 480″ (inches), as opposed to 480′ (feet).

Close-up of the plaque outside of the Newby-McMahon Building
Photo Credit: Solomon Chaim / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

The investors hadn’t noticed the error when reviewing the plans, and McMahon had never verbally said the building would be 480 feet tall. Based on this, the construction firm owner won the lawsuit, after which he left Wichita Falls with the money. The investors were able to recover a small portion of their funds, but only after the elevator company canceled its contract.

The Newby-McMahon Building was a source of embarrassment

Almost immediately after its construction, the Newby-McMahon Building became a source of embarrassment for those living in Wichita Falls. It attracted all sorts of attention, including the eye of Robert Ripley, who included it in his Ripley’s Believe It or Not! column. He dubbed it “the world’s littlest skyscraper,” a nickname that’s stuck to this day.

Exterior of the Newby-McMahon Building
Photo Credit: Nicolas Henderson / Flickr CC BY 2.0

Prior to the Great Depression, the skyscraper only housed two firms, who vacated it when the economy crashed. The Newby-McMahon Building was then boarded up and forgotten about, only re-entering the public consciousness following a fire in 1931.

When the economy began to recover, the building became home to a number of different businesses, including cafés and barbershops. It changed hands multiple times and was even slated for demolition, but local residents came to its defense, preventing the iconic structure from being destroyed.

Exterior of the Newby-McMahon Building
Photo Credit: Epopan / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Eventually, the Newby-McMahon Building was deeded to the city of Wichita Falls, which gave it to the Wichita County Heritage Society in 1986. The hope was the group would restore it to its former glory, but the repairs proved to be too expensive.

This led the local city council to hire the architectural firm Bundy, Young, Sims & Potter to work on stabilizing the skyscraper, which it did in partnership with Marvin Groves Electric and another business.

Exterior of the Newby-McMahon Building
Photo Credit: Nicolas Henderson / Flickr CC BY 2.0

In June 2003, a strong storm swept through Wichita Falls, causing a 15-foot section of wall to collapse. While the damage from the storm was repaired, a full restoration of it and the adjacent Newby Building was delayed until 2005, when the Wichita Falls council granted the project $25,000 in funds from the city’s tax increment financing fund. The remainder of the money was provided by Marvin Groves Electric and the architectural firm.

The Newby-McMahon Building remains standing

Following its renovation, the Newby-McMahon Building became home to an antiques dealership, followed by a furniture and home décor consignment store. At times, the upper floors are rented to various local artisans.

Exterior of the Newby-McMahon Building at sunset
Photo Credit: Dan / Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

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The iconic skyscraper has since been added to the Depot Square Historic District of Wichita Falls, having been named a Texas Historic Landmark. The building is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.