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Smallest skyscraper

In 1919, a construction firm led by J. D. McMahon got investors to commit huge amounts of money for a skyscraper in Wichita Falls, Texas. They thought it would be 480 feet high… but they got 480 inches instead.

Smallest skyscraper
Travis K. Witt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, you have to admire the cleverness of this scam. In 1919, Wichita Falls was in the middle of an oil boom, and a construction firm that specialised in building rigs breezed into town. The owner of the firm, J. D. McMahon, proposed that he build a skyscraper to mark the town’s entry into the big leagues. He gathered ridiculous amounts of money from eager investors – the equivalent of about three million US dollars in 2020 terms – and construction began.

The skyscraper went up very quickly. It went up exactly four floors, and then it stopped. The investors were outraged. Where was their skyscraper? They sued McMahon for misrepresenting the project, and this is where the scam truly landed. The blueprints indicated the height very clearly: 480”, or 480 inches. Supposedly the investors had misread this as 480′, or 480 feet, and McMahon had done nothing to disabuse them of this notion.

McMahon pocketed the profit and skipped town. The world’s smallest skyscraper had been built without getting permission from the actual owner of the land. There was no way to get off the ground floor: it had neither stairs nor an elevator (ladders were installed later).

This is a great story, and the building still stands in Wichita Falls. Its history appears to rely greatly on local lore, so of course I suggest that you take it with a good dose of salt. At the very least it’s a great urban legend.

Categories: History Modern history North & Central America Places

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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