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Former Harlan's Barber Shop building could become a historical landmark

The 110-year-old building is getting a new look as an architect plans to renovate it into an office, promising to keep fixtures of the barber shop's history.

DES MOINES, Iowa — On Woodland Avenue, there is a small building that's been a staple in the Des Moines community since the early 1900s. 

Despite its small size, the building has made a big historical impact for Black Iowans. Now, it's getting a new look.  

The building was originally built in 1913 at a whopping 685 square feet.

It stood as a grocery store until 1967. A year later, Harlan H. Thomas bought the building and turned it into a barber shop. 

"White people did not cut Black hair," Thomas said. "So we had to have Black barber shops around here." 

Harlan's Barber Shop was small in size, but longtime customer Richard Randal remembers it having a big impact as a gathering place. 

"It wasn't just about getting your hair cut, he would talk to you about 'hey, what's your aspirations in life, how's how's your grades been doing?'" Randal said. "So I kind of looked at him as a father figure."

 Apart from being a role model, former regular Ted Jefferson said Thomas was also a resilient business owner. 

"Not very many black businesses survived at that time. And his was one of the ones that did, maybe one or two that did survive," Jefferson said. "And it was really important because it was, it was the legacy."

 Now, the 110-year-old building is getting a new look as architect Steve Wilke-Shapiro plans to renovate it into an office for his company, promising to keep fixtures of the barber shop's history.

Wilke-Shapiro is also working with the city toward honoring Thomas and the old barber shop building. 

"It has an important story to tell and making sure that we understand the history of the building is super important and that is one of the reason why i'm going through the landmarking process," Wilke-Shapiro said.

For Thomas, a historical marker recognizing him means a great deal. 

"I was there for almost close to 50 years, you know, so that means a lot to me," he said. 

It's also a recognition of the Black community that once gave this building life. 

"Harlan's Barber Shop is an example of that," Jefferson said. "We will not be moved. We're still here."

The city's landmark review board looked over the plans recommended by Wilke-Shapiro two weeks ago. Des Moines City Council said they are set to make their decision within the next few weeks.  

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