WICHITA FALLS (KFDX/KJTL) — They say everything is bigger in Texas, but when it comes to skyscrapers in a town just south of the Red River, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Newby-McMahon Building, better known as “The World’s Littlest Skyscraper,” sits at the corner of 7th Street and La Salle in Downtown Wichita Falls, Texas. The red brick structure stands a meager 40 feet tall and its four habitable floors are barely larger than a typical bedroom, measuring 9 feet wide by 12 feet long.
It may seem underwhelming today, over 100 years after it was constructed in 1919. However, to the residents of a once-booming North Texas city a century ago who were expecting an actual skyscraper, it was downright embarrassing.
That’s because, according to local legend, The World’s Littlest Skyscraper is the result of one of the greatest architectural scandals of all time.
The story begins in 1918. Wichita Falls was experiencing a rapid expansion, thanks in large part to the discovery of oil in nearby Burkburnett. As the area quickly expanded, more and more space was needed to accommodate the nearly overnight explosion of growth.
Enter J.D. McMahon, a contractor from Amarillo. According to government documents, McMahon had the idea for a new building project that would bring a state-of-the-art skyscraper to Downtown Wichita Falls, complete with space for offices, retailers, and apartments.
The idea seemed on paper to be both impressive and promising. Chet Garner, the host of PBS’s Daytripper, said the pitch was for a skyscraper that would be a monstrous 480 feet high, making it the tallest building in Texas.
Investors were quickly sold on the project and began fronting the funds to McMahon. Garner said McMahon was able to raise $200,000 for the skyscraper. When adjusted for inflation, that would be a modern-day equivalent of well over $3 million.
It took a short time for construction on the building to be completed. After it was, McMahon packed his bags and left Wichita Falls. Official documents say for months, one of the investors would occasionally call inquiring about the whereabouts of this grand skyscraper, but he could never get an answer.
According to the legend, eventually, the investor got in touch with someone with construction experience. The person with construction knowledge asked the investor to describe the building he was looking for, and wrote down what the investor said. He didn’t think much of the description, however. The investor claimed the building was 40 stories tall, 100 feet wide, and 160 feet long. The man who spoke with him knew Wichita Falls had no buildings like this.
Official documents said the investor was adamant that the structure was in the heart of Downtown Wichita Falls, at 701 La Salle Street. “I even saw a sketch of the city skyline and this building was right there, prominently featured, very impressive,” the investor said.
Eventually, the man who spoke with the agitated investor found a four-story, skinny building on La Salle Street. The man measured the building. After running the numbers, he “burst out laughing.”
What he’d discovered was that McMahon’s state-of-the-art skyscraper was indeed this skinny, four-floor building, built exactly as promised, except not to the square foot.
The skyscraper was built to the square inch. Instead of a towering 480 feet tall, McMahon’s building was only 40 feet tall. Or 480 inches.
According to Garner’s Daytripper article, investors were furious and quickly filed a lawsuit against McMahon. However, when a judge reviewed the approved blueprints, he found that everything was in order, and McMahon had built his “skyscraper” exactly how he told his investors he would build it.
The judge found that the final, approved plans were in fact laid out in inches instead of feet.
“McMahon had executed the con of the century by simply adding an apostrophe,” Garner said. “Turns out that when people see dollar signs, they tend to overlook punctuation.”
Garner said the investors originally wanted to destroy the building, but eventually, a nationally syndicated newspaper column Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, picked up the story, referring to the Newby-McMahon building as “the world’s littlest skyscraper,” a nickname that has stuck ever since.
The building sat vacant for years before it was purchased in the early 2000s. Stairs, which weren’t included in the original construction, were added to the building, and the rest of the structure got a facelift.
Now, it serves as the home of Hello Again, a locally-owned business selling clothing, furniture, and more. The building has also been designated as a landmark by the City of Wichita Falls. It’s also listed in the National Registry of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior.