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Thursday, August 20, 1998

Cowboys mosey on, but littlest skyscraper remains

By Bill Whitaker

The Dallas Cowboys may have left Wichita Falls this week, but the town still measures up - sort of - when it comes to other attractions.

For instance, Wichita Falls is still home of what some call the Littlest Skyscraper. But then, some others would say that doesn't amount to much.

Surprise! Both sides are correct.

Although it's not exactly on the approved list of sights to see in Wichita Falls, some say the 30-foot "skyscraper" is worth restoring to some semblance of its former glory - which, admittedly, wasn't much.

"I never really thought it was worth saving," 87-year-old Wichita County Historical Commission legend Ralph Harvey told me. "I've never understood why some people make such a big deal about it. But about half of the people around here want to save it.

"The other half would prefer it just be hauled off."

"It was conceived as a swindle," Ralph added, "and there are just too many other good things about Wichita Falls to remember without remembering that."

Certainly, the Littlest Skyscraper is an offbeat historical monument. Built early this century, the structure-to-be was advertised as Wichita Falls' first significant, bona fide, big-city skyscraper. The developer even got people to invest their hard-earned money into its construction.

But when the building was done, investors discovered the skyscraper was only 30 feet tall, 18 feet deep and 10 feet wide. And of the reportedly $200,000 sunk into the skyscraper's construction - well, that was plainly gone with the wind.

BELIEVE IT OR NOT

Wichita Falls isn't the only town that's seen a flimflam man or two come through appealing for investment dollars. Still, some townfolks in Wichita Falls harbor an oddball affection for the building built on a scam. Maybe it's just a testament of their easy sense of humor.

"Well, it's like any of the other buildings downtown," said Carole Woessner, executive director of the Wichita County Heritage Society. "It has an interesting history, even if there's actually more lore than history. But it's something we don't want to see torn down."

Ralph Harvey, who begs to differ with some townfolks, suggests one reason the 1919 building continues to stand - even while it's in the process of crumbling - is because it attracted the attention of oddity-seeking Robert Ripley of "Ripley's Believe It or Not" fame.

"That building would have been forgotten many years ago, but Robert Ripley devoted some space to the building's history," Ralph said. "Other than that, though, any attention about it would've died long ago and every brick in its construction would've been hauled off."

Ironically, the building garnered a lot of new attention during the past month, when TV sports crews and bored newspapermen, looking for something to chronicle besides the Dallas Cowboys' training camp, leveled their gaze on Wichita Falls' Littlest Skyscraper.

While other sights in town - the historic Kell Mansion, the nearby railroad museum and the town's picture-perfect waterfalls - may rate more attention, how can you compete with something that has scam written all over it and still stands?

INCH BY INCH

To hear Wichita Falls Times Record News writer Le Templar, the scam artist who convinced people to invest in this skyscraper quietly used inches rather than feet in the blueprints. By the time anyone knew better, the building was reaching for the sky.

But not very.

Concerned about the crumbling condition of the building, the city of Wichita Falls eventually gave the skyscraper to the Wichita County Heritage Society, which hopes to eventually restore the building, making it a viable part of the Depot Square Historical District.

"It's pretty much drawn international attention," Carole insisted.

Ralph, who's been keeping track of Wichita County history for many moons now, can't remember when anyone actually officed in the building. And even if somebody did, he or she probably didn't get a whole lot of use out of the second or third floors.

"There wasn't even a staircase," Ralph said, dismissing the building built by a swindler. "You had to use a ladder to get into the upstairs."

And that, to hear Ralph, would in effect be a stairway to nowhere.

Bill Whitaker, who notices even short skyscrapers stand tall in the wide open spaces, can be reached at 676-6732. E-mail Bill at WTWARN@aol.com.

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Copyright ©1998, Bill Whitaker, Abilene Reporter-News / Texnews / E.W. Scripps Publications

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