In researching Rt66, I came across a little stop that wasn’t on the Mother Road, but had a funny story nonetheless. I read it and had a chuckle, and then went on my way, thinking it wasn’t in the cards for this trip. This is usually the kind of thing we’ll drive WAY out of our way to see, but by the time we were headed in that direction, I’d forgotten all about it.
So as we wandered the deserted streets of Wichita Falls on Thanksgiving Day hoping to luck into an open mom and pop restaurant, I was only thinking about turkey. But when I saw a familiar silhouette peeking out over a dumpster near the train depot, I squealed like a little girl and navigated the hubs towards it, briefly forgetting about food.
Mark: “What is that?”
Me: “It’s a SKYSCRAPER!”
Mark: “What? No it’s not.”
Me: “Yes it is! It’s the world’s littlest skyscraper!”
Once upon a time, Wichita Falls was a bonafide boom town with something like 20,000 hopefuls streaming in to seek their fortune in oil. This sudden tsunami of people, jobs, industry, and money happened a little too quickly for the small town, so infrastructure was lagging. Oil companies and brokerage houses had hastily pitched tents for temporary office space and brokers were frantically doing business deals worth thousands of dollars on street corners. This frenzy created the ideal setting for one of the most fascinating con jobs in American history.
In 1906, Wichita Falls and Oklahoma City Railway Company director August Newby built a one story office building near the train depot. The Newby Building, as it was called, was never at full occupancy until the discovery of black gold nearby. Then, the modest office building swelled with seven tenants.
Enter JD McMahon, a fast-talking East Coast businessman, engineer, and oilman. McMahon was one of the Newby Building tenants, and he had an idea. He drew up plans for a high rise unlike anything Wichita Falls had ever seen. The late-neoclassical style “skyscraper” annex to the Newby Building would overlook the oil fields, and help usher the sleepy town on the plains into the future. He quickly set about selling $200,000 (that’s about $3 million to us) in stock to eager investors looking to get rich quickly. The investors, many of whom were city officials, blindly handed over their money, their eyes too clouded with dollar signs to pay much attention to the details.
Once McMahon had the cash, his crew began to build. By the time the investors realized what had hit them, it was too late. The “skyscraper” was nearly complete. In a stroke of evil genius, McMahon had clearly drawn his high-rise plans in inches rather than feet, rendering the perceived 40-story skyscraper to a mere 40 feet tall– not much larger than an elevator shaft.
The angry investors dragged McMahon into court, demanding that the film flam man be punished and their money returned. But the judge ruled against them, teaching them an expensive lesson: read the fine print. Other than building the annex on property that he didn’t own, without the owner’s permission, McMahan had done nothing illegal. He had built the building EXACTLY according to the blueprints– the blueprints NONE of the investors had bothered to look at. So good ‘ol JD headed off into the annals of history with his millions, never to be heard from again.
Embarrassed by their gullibility (ie: the proposed building site was only 10′ x 16.75’) or that the double tick marks next to all the measurements on the blueprints (rather than the single tick marks) indicated inches, the investors had no choice but to accept defeat. The contracted elevator company even backed out, either out of pity for the investors or because an elevator wouldn’t actually fit in the building. Until an internal staircase could be added, an external ladder had to be used to access the upper floors. Since office space was still in high demand, oil companies squeezed desks into the 118 square feet (per floor).
When the Depression hit and the boom ended, the silly little skyscraper at the corner of Seventh and LaSalle was boarded up and forgotten. In 1986, the City of Wichita Falls deeded the building to the Wichita County Heritage Society, and they attempted to preserve it. But, shortly thereafter, the little skyscraper was abandoned again. There were plans to have it demolished, but the architectural firm of Bundy, Young, Sims & Potter was hired to stabilize the dilapidated structure. The partners fell in love with it and partnered with Martin Groves Electric to buy it. They spent a bunch of money restoring it. They admit it probably wasn’t the smartest financial investment, but they found the little skyscraper’s true value was in its unique place in local history.
Plus, it’s a great conversation piece and draws a steady stream of curious tourists… like the Crazy Train! I told the kids the story, and, wide eyed, my daughter asked how so many people could be so gullible. I told her that this building is a great lesson: always read the fine print before signing anything or investing your money.