Humans have long built on a grand scale. From the Pyramids of Egypt to the moai of Easter Island, civilizations all over the world have built massive structures that even today boggle the mind.
This trend has continued into the modern world, with technology allowing for ever more massive buildings. Arguably the most emblematic structures of the 20th and 21st centuries are skyscrapers. Huge buildings reaching hundreds of feet into the sky, they are symbols of wealth, power, and prestige.
Early in the 20th century, there was a scramble for this vertical real estate, as taller and more ambitious skyscrapers reached ever higher. But one skyscraper bucked the trend, and is known not for its massive size, but as the smallest skyscraper ever built. Measuring only four stories tall, the structure was the brain child of a slick swindler who took advantage of the early 20th century oil boom in Texas.
The Littlest Skyscraper’s Legendary Origins
The World’s Littlest Skyscraper was born out of the booming economy of the Gilded Age, a time characterized by vast wealth and perhaps vaster corruption. Its origins are somewhat murky, but the strange structure was said to have been born as a result of the oil boom in North Texas in the first part of the 1900s. Residents of Wichita Falls and the surrounding Wichita County struck it rich selling rights to mineral deposits. The scale of business shot up so fast that deals were struck in the street and new oil companies trying to capitalize on Wichita’s black gold were putting up tents as makeshift offices. With all the money and business flowing into Wichita Falls, new office space was sorely needed.
Enter J.D. McMahon. A businessman from Philadelphia, McMahon knew an opportunity when he saw one. He rented a room in Wichita Falls and quickly went about promoting his plant for a modern skyscraper to rival those in New York and Chicago. He managed to sell $200,000 worth of stock in the venture to investors (nearly $5 million in today’s dollars) and promptly put their money to work.
What investors failed to realize, according to legend, was that the blue print they’d signed off on had been drawn up showing square inches, not square feet. The result was a squat building only four stories tall and measuring only 11×19 feet outside, with approximately a quarter of the inside space being occupied by stairwells.
McMahon completed construction of the little skyscraper, and promptly left with the remaining funds. Flummoxed investors attempted to track down the con artist and tried to take legal action, but since the building was built exactly according to blueprints they’d signed off on, the law could give them no recourse.
Investors tried to make the best of the situation, leasing space to oil companies who crammed desks and office workers into the cramped space as best they could. Such was the state of affairs, until the boom faded away. Then the Great Depression hit in 1929, and business dried up. The little skyscraper was boarded up and largely forgotten.
A New Life
The building sat idle for the next several decades. No one was quite sure what to do with the weird little structure. Finally, in 1986, the city deeded it to the Wichita County Heritage Society. Attempts at preservation failed, and once again the would-be skyscraper found itself in limbo. There was talk among townsfolk of demolishing the dilapidated structure. Not quite willing to commit to demolishing a quirky part of the town’s history, the city hired the architectural firm of Bundy, Young, Sims & Potter to shore it up.
The architectural firm partners quickly became enamored of the odd little building, to the point that in 2000 they partnered with Marvin Groves Electric to purchase and renovate the building. Today, the World’s Littlest Skyscraper is both a tourist attraction and the site for a local antique shop, The Antique Wood.
“Littlest Skyscraper,” bysp.com. BYSP Architects. November 30, 2015. http://www.bysp.com/projects/pdf/proj10/proj6.pdf
Stowers, Carlton. “Legend of the World’s Littlest Skyscraper.” Texascooppower.com. July 2008. Texas Co-op Power. November 30, 2015. http://www.texascooppower.com/texas-stories/history/legend-of-the-worlds-littlest-skyscraper
“The World’s Smallest Skyscraper.” Witchitafallstx.gov. Retrieved November 30, 2015. http://www.wichitafallstx.gov/DocumentCenter/View/19745