The movie This is Spinal Tap is one of the first “mockumentaries” — a documentary-style film about a fictional group of people. The focus of the faux documentary is on the heavy metal band Spinal Tap and their wild lives on-stage and off, and of course, the pretentiousness and pettiness which allegedly came part and parcel of being in a 1980s-era rock band. One of the highlights of their travails: a song about Stonehenge, where the band ordered, as part of their stage accouterments, an 18-foot high model of the famed monument. Unfortunately, the band member who drew the design for the model wrote 18″ — eighteen inches, not feet — as seen here. The band’s manager ordered the model as drawn, and that was what was delivered. (The band performed anyway, as seen in this clip, but be forewarned that the language in both of those links is not safe for work.)
But This is Spinal Tap is fiction. Something like that couldn’t happen in real life, could it?
In 1919, Wichita Falls was experiencing massive growth due to the discovery of oil in Texas and Oklahoma. A structural engineer named J.D. McMahon decided to capitalize — in an underhanded way — on the city’s increasing need for office space. He raised roughly $200,000 in investment capital (roughly $2.5 million in today’s dollars) to build a 480-foot skyscraper — huge, at the time, given that the world’s tallest building was under 800 feet tall. (By comparison’s sake, the Empire State Building, excluding its spire, is 1,250 feet tall.)
What the investors got, instead, was a headache. Why? Because McMahon’s blueprints did not call for a 480-foot building — but rather, a 480-inch building. The plans clearly were marked with a double prime, and McMahon apparently did not call this details out to his investors, hoping to instead slip the problems past them. He succeeded: the investors realized their error only after the building started to take shape, and by then, it was too late. By and large, the investors were without legal recourse, as McMahon delivered exactly what his blueprints called for, as seen in the picture above.
But do not feel too bad for the investors. They were obviously asleep at the switch, so to speak, as the blueprints had two other obvious deficiencies. One, they only called for only four floors, which makes sense when each floor is only ten feet high, but utter nonsense when ceilings are 120 feet above the floor. (The tallest building in Vermont, Decker Towers, is only 124 feet tall — total.) And second, the building plans did not include an internal staircase, making the upper floors inaccessible. The building owners, after completion, installed a ladder.
The building now has a plaque, seen here, which states that the building was completed in 1906 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The plaque is as fictional as the beliefs of the building’s investors. In truth, the building was completed in 1919 and has not actually received a listing in the Register.
From the Archives: Georgia’s Version of Stonehenge: It’s a lot taller than 18″.
Related: “Solving Stonehenge: The Key to an Ancient Enigma” by Anthony Johnson. Five stars on three reviews.