World's Littlest Skyscraper


In 1912 with the discovery of oil in tiny Burkburnett, Texas, many land owners in Wichita County became almost instant millionaires. Million dollar deals for mineral rights were being negotiated on street corners and under open-air tents in the nearby town of Wichita Falls because there were not enough office buildings to meet the demands of the bankers and oil companies. Seeing an opportunity, promoter J.D. McMahon arrived in Wichita Falls in 1918 from Philadelphia with blueprints in hand for a multi-story office building he promised to build on a vacant lot he had purchased just across the street from the thriving St. James hotel. He quickly sold $200,000 (equivalent to $2,720,000 in 2015) in stock to investors caught up in the frenzy of making a quick financial killing.

What J.D. conveniently forgot to point out to his investors however was that his blueprint was in inches rather than feet. Evidently too busy making other deals to keep an eye on construction while McMahon was building his skyscraper, the investors eventually found themselves owners of a building that was much closer to being an elevator shaft than the skyscraper office building they had envisioned. The building's outside dimensions were only 11 feet by 19 feet and only 4 stories tall. There was no elevator and the interior stairs leading to the upper floors took up 25% of the floor space.

When the duped investors sought out J.D. to get their money back, they discovered he was nowhere to be found. He was finally located back in Philadelphia, but when legal recourse was attempted, investors found they did not have a case - J.D. had built exactly what the blueprints called for and they had signed off on them.

With office space in such short supply, several of the oil companies crammed in a few desks and a handful of workers had to be content that at least they were working out of the hot sun and off the dusty streets. Eventually, the boom ceased and shortly afterwards came the Great Depression. The offices were closed, the desks removed, the windows boarded up and the little building was abandoned. In 1931, a fire broke out and made the interior unusable. For the next 55 years the structure remained an empty, burned-out forgotten shell.

By 1986, the city had assumed ownership due to non-payment of back taxes, but they didn't know what to do with it and didn't want it so they simply gave it to the Wichita County Heritage Society. The Society raised funds and attempted to restore the long-neglected and crumbling structure, but it proved too much and several years later it was once again abandoned and returned to the city.

The city was on the verge of having the crumbling building demolished when a few powerful citizens intervened to save it. The city hired the architectural firm of Bundy, Young, Sims & Potter to stabilize the structure until they figured out what to do with it. While working on the building, the firm became interested in the history and legacy of it and in 2000, they formed a partnership with Groves Electric, another local business, to purchase it. The city was only too happy to have it off their hands and sold it to them for $3,748. The partnership began restoration work and were close to completion when in 2003 a tornado tore through downtown Wichita Falls and a 15-foot section of a brick wall was knocked down and severe damage done to the interior. In 2005 after more than $250,000 in repairs had been completed, the little skyscraper was good as new.

Now, almost 100 years after it was erected, the building has withstood fire, tornado and years of neglect to be a symbol of the greed, graft and gullibility of the oil boom days in Texas. It is listed on the Texas Historic Landmark Building rolls and the Guinness Book of World Records has certified it as the World's Littlest Skyscraper. And yes, it does have tenants. In addition to being a tourist attraction, an antique dealer and an artist call the little skyscraper at 701 LaSalle Street their business home.

A lot of things in Texas really are bigger, but there's at least one thing that is the littlest.
 
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