Ask ten people from Wichita Falls, Texas the true story behind the rail-thin, heavily windowed building that rises from gritty sandstone warehouses like a red-bricked phoenix hatchling, and you’re likely to get ten different answers.
Some say it is a decorative housing for a water tower. Others swear that it’s a practice facility for firefighters learning to walk up and down stairways in their bulky suits. Still others believe it is a castoff from some 1950s movie set, or that it used to be a smuggling house for bootleggers during Prohibition. Everybody seems to have an answer, but nobody knows the truth.
Standing at forty feet tall, eighteen feet deep, and ten feet wide, the Newby-McMahon Building immediately appears out of place. Barely wider than its windows, and standing only four stories tall, it looks like an expensive practical joke. This becomes an even more credible theory when you go inside the structure and realize that twenty-five percent of its internal area is consumed by a staircase leading to the upper floors. How could something this odd ever be built?
The answer to that question is a fascinating tale, rife with con men, fraud, and city-wide naiveté. The original Newby Building, built by Augustus Newby in 1906, was a one story brick office building near the railway depot in downtown Wichita Falls. As the city grew in wealth and size during the early twentieth century oil boom, a tenant of the Newby Building, the oil-rig construction firm of J.D. McMahon, decided to propose and build a high-rise annex next to the structure in an attempt to alleviate the city’s dearth of downtown office space. In 1919, McMahon collected $200,000 of investor capital (about $3 million in today’s dollars) and provided a blueprint which depicted a building 480 inches tall. McMahon neglected to specify that the building’s scale was measured in inches, not feet, and no investors noticed the double tick marks before handing McMahon a fortune in capital.
McMahon used his own crew to build the new “skyscraper.” By the time the investors realized they had been swindled, the building was nearly complete. They took McMahon to court, but since he listed the building’s height on the blueprint in inches, not feet, the construction deal was upheld by the courts. Adding insult to injury, the elevator crew originally contracted for the project backed out, which meant that until an internal stairway was built years later, the only way to access the upper floors was by an external ladder.
The Newby-McMahon Building was an embarrassment for local officials. As the oil boom ended and the Great Depression began, the building went unused for decades and fell into disrepair. After the economy rebounded, various tenants, including a barbershop and local eateries, briefly occupied the building. In 2000 Marvin Groves Electric, a local business, purchased the again-vacant building for $3,748 and restored the structure as a permanent feature of the Depot Square Historic District of Wichita Falls. $250,000 and ten years later, it stands tall-ish, occupied by an antique store and an artist’s studio - a symbol of the rapid growth and rampant greed of the oil boom era.
Know Before You Go
On the corner of La Salle and 7th streets. No detailed directions are necessary; it stands out quite clearly.