How could a city invest a fortune in a “high-rise” that’s only about forty feet tall? This building’s tale should appear in the dictionary as the definition of “hoodwinked.”
In 1912, a large petroleum reservoir was discovered west of the city of Burkburnett, a small town just outside of Wichita Falls. Of course everyone was pretty happy about the financial windfall that ensued, but it also brought more people and businesses to town that wasn’t prepared to house them. People were so desperate that they were even conducting business in tents pitched on street corners. What Wichita Falls needed was more office space!
There was a one story building on the corner of Seventh and LaSalle Streets built by Augustus Newby in 1906 that was ideally located near the downtown railway depot. One of its tenants, J. D. McMahon, had a construction firm in there and say what he thought was a shining opportunity.
In 1919 he proposed to build a high-rise annex next to the Newby Building that would provide multiple floors of space for commerce to the boomtown. Sounds like a great idea, right? That’s what the city leaders thought, too.
McMahon drew up impressive looking blueprints (though he wasn’t an architect) and showed them to potential investors, who forked over $200,000 in capital for the building’s construction. That’s the equivalent of $2.8 million in today’s money!
He proceeded with the construction of the skyscraper, but used his own construction crew to control and oversee the project.
Locals evidently turned their attention elsewhere as the building was being raised, because it was almost completed before they noticed that something was wrong. Their high-rise tower wasn’t what they had envisioned. Instead of the 480-foot structure thy expected; McMahon had built a 480-inch building.
The brick embarrassment was only eighteen feet deep, ten feet wide and each of the four floors had only 118 square feet of space on each of the four floors.
It’s been referred to as a glorified elevator shaft, which is especially ironic since the crew originally hired to install an elevator backed out of the project. The only way to access the upper floors was by an external ladder (until an interior staircase was built years later).
Infuriated investors took McMahon to court, sure that they would find justice for the con. But they had one more surprise in store.
Even though the judge was sympathetic to their complaints, he had to rule in favor of McMahon. What none of the financers had noticed in their excitement and rush to sign off on the project is that the blueprint listed the building’s dimensions in inches – not feet. It was build to the specifications proposed – 480” not 480’. Oh, the different an apostrophe makes!
The narrow stairs that were built a few years later took up twenty-five percent of the interior space, making it even smaller.
How could the situation possibly be worse? McMahon had never gotten permission from the property’s owner, who lived in Oklahoma, to build on the lot!
Needless to say, the Newby-McMahon Building was quite an embarrassment for local officials. The oil boom ended shortly after the building was completed, and it was boarded up and fell into disrepair.
Once the economy regained its footing, several small businesses operated in the snug spaces of the structure, including a barbershop and restaurants. It is now home to an antique shop on the bottom floor, and artist studios above.
Luckily, the building has survived several potentially fatal events including a fire, a 2003 tornado, and attempts by locals to have it demolished.
Wichita’s City County granted $25,000 in funds for the building’s restoration in 2005. Now, it’s true that that’s as much as it cost to build it in the first place – but that was a different time. Now the people of this Texas town have a reminder of the oil boom, a curiosity of visitors and something to point to and tell an amazing tale.
It might be difficult to spot from a distance because there’s more “sky” than “scraper,” but it’s worth stopping by to see this scam-tastic little piece of Texas history.