Gardens to Gables

EMBA Building, Sturgis, Kentucky

My first trip through Union County, in Western Kentucky, occurred during a week of spring floods. Our plan to travel along small, meandering rural roads close to the river was often thwarted by standing water. Although our circuitous route missed the county seat of Morganfield, we did stop in the coal-mining town of Sturgis, established in 1886 by the Cumberland Iron and Land Company.

Several times we were forced to backtrack because of high water.

Coal mines were in operation prior to the “black diamond bonanza” that transformed farmland into grids of streets and buildings. In the last quarter of the 19th century, small mines sold coal to nearby farmers and to steamboats plying the Ohio and Tradewater Rivers. The first post office opened in 1888, as did the first private school in Sturgis.

The EMBA Building in downtown Sturgis, Kentucky.

Although I imagine some remnants of the town’s 19th century history linger, I only saw the landscape shaped by the coal boom of the early 20th century – including the EMBA Building.

Date stone in the lobby of the EMBA Building.

The two-story brick building occupies a prominent corner in Sturgis, and within a streetscape of smaller one and two-story brick commercial buildings, it is a giant.

Built in 1928 by the West Kentucky Coal Company, the building was home to the company’s Employees Mutual Benefit Association and five other local business offices.

The side elevation of the EMBA Building.

The EMBA Building was described in a WPA publication as the “center of much of the town’s life” with “varied and ample” facilities. The building contained an auditorium (and stage) on the first floor that could seat 1,500, and not only hosted theatrical events, but basketball games. The second floor boasted a “well-equipped electrical kitchen” and another auditorium that seated 400, used principally as a dining hall.

A 1940 view of the EMBA Building from the WPA files at the Kentucky Department of Library and Archives.

The facade of the seven bay building is striking – with both the corner two bays and the entrance raised, and stone accents lining the cornice and anchoring the lintels of the windows. Handsome stone cartouches crown the stepped parapet on the corners of the building and the central bay.

The double entry doors are framed by sidelights and topped by a graceful fanlight – and shielded from the weather by a metal canopy. All of these elements are still present, including the original double-hung sash windows and the canopy (though it is a little worse for the wear).

Some windows on the side elevation are boarded up, and the EMBA Building presents a wistful, neglected air. I wasn’t able to find out much about its current function, but as a pedestrian walking by, it appears vacant, its fortunes tied to that of the coal industry, in decline since the mid-20th century.

 

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7 Thoughts on “EMBA Building, Sturgis, Kentucky

  1. David Ames on February 28, 2017 at 9:06 am said:

    Very nice; most helpful and interesting to a newcomer to Kentucky. The WPA books are wonderfully useful. Always get excited when see a gardentogables post show up.

  2. Jonna Wallace on February 28, 2017 at 11:02 am said:

    My Dad and his family is from Sturgis and I’m third generation coal miner’s daughter. I grew up in Morganfield. Nice gem. Happy you were able to make a trip there. Enjoyed reading.

  3. Date terrazzo in the lobby of the EMBA Building. I prefer old-fashioned cornerstones (actually made of stone) since they tell who built and designed the building. Still a nice design despite the loss of the original doors. The problem is finding a use for it compatible with the poor, declining town it is in that also preserves its exterior and interior architectural integrity. That is what makes rural and small town historic preservation so difficult.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on March 2, 2017 at 11:22 am said:

      Yes, that is one of the inherent challenges with preservation in many parts of Kentucky – unless you have someone in the community with deep pockets or just inspiration, we lack incentives on the local and state levels (other than the historic tax credit) to make retaining historic buildings palatable and approachable. I use “datestone” as a generic term to refer to any sort of marker (date/architect/original function of building) included within the original building – exterior walls, lobby entrance – no matter the material. Thank you for reading!

      • What I forgot to point out in my previous comment is how rare such a date terrazzo is. While I prefer cornerstones, since they usually have more information and are prominently displayed on the building’s exterior, a terrazzo entrance with the building’s construction date is very rare. I can only think of one building I have personally encountered with one, a post-World War II downtown department store. That terrazzo was destroyed a few years ago in a severe remuddling.

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