Barbershop / Office Project

Historic Rehabilitation of a Local Landmark Building

From Grocery Store to Barbershop to Architecture Office

In late 2022, Sequel Architecture was selected to redevelop this unassuming, but historic building.  It had sat vacant for almost eight years and was deteriorating quickly… but City of Des Moines and Polk County staff recognized it as an important part of the Des Moines story, worth preserving.

After almost a year of work (starting with the process of nominating it as a Local Landmark), Sequel Architecture moved in to the fully rehabilitated office!


1913 Grefe Grocery

1968 Harlan and Bill’s Imperial Hair Styles

2023 Sequel Architecture + Interiors

Grefe Grocery

This 625 square foot wood frame building was originally constructed in 1913 as “Grefe Grocery”.   Hellen O. Wilkin purchased the business in the early 1920’s and then sold it just a few years later to the then-manager, Neil Sanford Landess.  Upon Neil’s death, his son Paul L. Landess took over operation of the store. Paul, like his father, owned the store until he passed away in 1963.

The property went through probate and sat vacant for a few years before it was purchased by Harlan and Bill Thomas.

Harlan and Bill’s Imperial Hair Styles Barbershop

The building was eventually sold to Harlan H. Thomas and William H. Thomas who remodeled the building into a barbershop.  Harlan Thomas had been cutting hair since his early 20s (his mom was also a stylist). He graduated near the top of his state barber certification course and became known as a premier barber, traveling throughout Iowa and further to cut Black hair in a time when it was a generally segregated profession.

In 1988, Mr. Thomas was called to the Savery Hotel to trim the Jesse Jackson’s hair while the Reverend was in town campaigning for president.

As a fixture in the jazz and blues music scene on Center Street and a member of the Soul Brothers band (and later the Platinum Blues Band), Harlan Thomas’ involvement in the music community meant that the barbershop also served as a social hub centered around music. Harlan Thomas was honored as a 1999 inductee into the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame.

Harlan Thomas

The barbershop remained in operation for 47 years until closing circa 2015. A large building assessment for public improvements to the sewer system caused Mr. Thomas to close the shop at that time.

During construction and at the grand opening of Sequel Architecture + Interiors, Mr. Thomas visited the building to share some stories with us about the barbershop days.  Saturday mornings meant people lining up down the block for one of his famous cuts!

Throughout construction (and continuing now that Sequel is in the office fulltime), people regularly knock on our door to take a look inside, sharing their memories about getting their hair styled in the barbershop, and playing jazz/blues music together!

Historic Landmark Status

We have been working with Kelli Lydon Research Services to uncover the building’s history and significance to the City of Des Moines. On Monday, March 6, 2023, we completed the final step to designate the building as a Local Landmark.

Local Landmark status does three things:

    • Documents in the public record the story of the building and the people who are associated with it.
    • Helps ensure that the building is treated with sensitivity and respect long into the future
    • Make the building eligible for various assistance to help with historic rehabilitation work

The project recently received “Part 1” approval from the state for Historic Tax Credits to help defray the substantial cost of rehabilitation.

Read the Landmark Nomination

Telling the Story

Accomplished Des Moines artist, Jill Wells Art, created an installation/artwork piece that tells the Barbershop story. The awesome Janae Patrice Photography is collaborated on images and social media for this project.

ARTIST WEBSITE (link to the Barbershop project on Jill Wells Art).

The project incorporates paneling salvaged from the barbershop walls. A black scale color palette will focus on the beauty of Blackness. The work will incorporate quotations, names, and comments from patrons and friends representing black community members, patrons of the barbershop, the Thomas family, and the shop itself.

The work was unveiled at the Open House event on December 11, 2023.



Sequel Architecture + Interiors
2513 Woodland Avenue
Des Moines, IA 50312

(515) 207-9526

Sequel Architecture + Interiors is a full-service architecture and interior design firm with expertise in homes, commercial, hospitality, historic, adaptive reuse, and creative new construction.

Licensed in Iowa and Minnesota