Everything is bigger in Texas and that includes our history. Even a small landmark comes with a larger-than-life, historical tale of how Texans turned a great embarrassment into a preserved structure that you can still visit today. The legend of the “The World’s Littlest Skyscraper” comes alive as a great visual experience from the past, and that’s where this story begins…
Master Builder Myles O’Reilly constructed a one-story brick office building near a railway depot in downtown Wichita Falls in 1906 for Augustus Newby. O’Reilly made his own bricks from the sand of the Wichita River and was known for building other structures around town like the St. James Hotel. Augustus Newby was an early pioneer businessman and Vice President of the City National Bank, owner of the first ice plant in Wichita Falls, and one of the men involved in bringing the Katy railroad to the city. Nothing was amiss when a two-room building was constructed along a two-block alley between Ohio Avenue and the railroad tracks bordering town. Unknowingly, this unassuming building was the framework of a confident man’s plan.
The city was growing in wealth and size during an early twentieth-century oil boom. Black Gold was found nearby and bank deposits increased by 400 percent as thousands of Wichita County residents turned into instant millionaires overnight. By 1918, 20,000 new settlers were flooding in looking for profitable jobs and taking up residence. Mineral rights deals and major stock transactions were being made on street corners and haphazardly erected tents served as the headquarters for oil companies.
Office spaces were desperately needed and Wichita Falls wanted to be known for being more than a boom town. America was skyscraper crazy during this time — New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and many other cities were quickly erecting them and newspapers quickly reported each record-setting height. If Wichita Falls wanted to be considered the next celebrated city then it needed a skyscraper. A tenant of the Newby Building, the oil-rig construction firm of J.D. McMahon, decided to propose and build a high-rise that would get the nation’s attention and create space for downtown businesses.
J.D. McMahon quickly drew up blueprints and set to finding investors by circulating them among the local wealthy. People were looking to make a quick turnaround on their investments. Selling stock for a proposed, multistory office building that would go up just across the street from the thriving St. James Hotel was a wise investment even though McMahon was always vague about the exact location. McMahon showed everyone a blueprint of his current building that was said to be an impressive 480 feet tall, the size of the Giza Pyramid in Egypt! Five investors were caught up by McMahon’s promise and eagerly gave $200,000, which in today’s value would be nearly $3 million.
Using his own construction crew, the ground was quickly broken to start construction on the McMahon Building, and the beginning of his farce. Materials appeared around an unused lot next to the two-room Newby building. Investors quickly began to realize that something was amiss as the building started to take form. Firstly, the section of land being used was owned by Mabel Jones, Newby’s niece living in Oklahoma, and McMahon somehow failed to mention that he didn’t have her permission to build or that the land available was only 10×16 ft. There was also the size of the structure at its completion in 1919: the McMahon Building was only 40 FEET (480 in.) high!
How did McMahon swindle investors into purchasing a four-story building that was only 40 ft. tall? There were blueprints, right? McMahon successfully distributed blueprints that were all approved by the investors. What investors failed to realize until after the completed construction was that he wrote “instead of” on the blueprint making the building a total of 480 INCHES high and clearly marked with a double prime. The blueprints gave clues to other insufficiencies like only having four floors with 10 ft. ceilings without an internal staircase that isolated the upper levels. A lawsuit was quickly made against J.D. McMahon and investors were at a loss as a local Judge ruled the deal was legally binding because they approved the same blueprints.By the time the construction was complete, J.D. McMahon had left Wichita Falls with the investors’ money and left behind a tall tale to be told for years to come!
Now part of the Depot Square Historic District, this “high-rise” building is currently home to Hello Again, a furniture and home décor consignment boutique and visitor center for the Newby-McMahon Building or, the more commonly used name of “The World’s Littlest Skyscraper.” You can step back in time and visit the “Skyscraper” for FREE during business hours.
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