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Harlan's Barbershop 1968-2015

The 2513 Wood Barbershop Office Project is a historical project in partnership with Harlan and April Thomas and Sequel Architecture. This commission honors the history of Harlan's Barbershop located at 2513 Woodland Avenue. From 1968 - 2015 Harlan's was a mainstay for the Black community in Iowa.

From to March to December of 2023 I worked on creating the 2513 Woodland Barbershop Office Project beginning with research and an online open call for story submissions from barbershop patrons and community members. The open call for stories closed in September of 2023. Out of this call came many untold stories from the past and these stories, quotes, names, and comments were incorporated directly into the artwork itself.

My one-one-one conversations with Harlan and April Thomas, some of their patrons who are still in Iowa, and my research brought about a wealth of knowledge and a spectrum of emotions that have yet to settle.

I pushed all of this into layers of black oil and wood. I cut out feelings, thoughts, and words... but they are still with me. I faded time in grey scales, like a barber does, across the expanse of the human surface. Because we are human, we will forget some things and we will miss things. When we get the chance to visit history and tell about it, I believe what we have in such an encounter is the responsibility to change the present and the future.

"We are still here."
- Ted Jefferson: Harlan's Barbershop patron

Artwork Description: The 2513 Woodland Barbershop Office Project. Two 48-by-60-inch wood panels, salvaged from the walls of Harlan’s Barbershop, painted black. On the surface of each panel are hundreds of 3D black butterflies that are constructed from black, acid-free cardstock. Oral stories, names, and quotes are printed onto each butterfly. These stories tell the history of the landmark building that is 2513 Woodland Avenue, also known as Harlan’s Barbershop. Hundreds of individual butterflies on the side-by-side panels each makeup one-half of the symmetrical design of one larger butterfly. The butterflies represent black community members, the Thomas family, barbershop patrons, and the barbershop itself. The space between the two panels represents displacement in the black community, created by redlining and urban renewal. The black scale color palette focuses on the beauty of blackness.

Short Oral History: The 110-year-old, small, historic building originally existed as a grocery store, until 1968 when Harlan H. Thomas and William H. Thomas turned the grocery store into a barber shop. “Back then white people would not cut black people's hair”, said Harlan Thomas. Harlan’s barbershop was the quintessential Black barber experience shared by lifelong Des Moines resident and former barbershop patron Ted Jefferson. Jefferson supported the efforts to designate the building as a local landmark. Jefferson said it was more than a barbershop when it opened in 1968. "You would meet your friends. Catch up with what's going on. Catch up with the news. Catch up with what's going on in people's lives. Not very many black businesses survived at that time and his was one of the ones that did. It was very important because it was the legacy. Harlan’s barbershop was an example that we will not be moved. We are still here." Jefferson said. Barbershops have long served as social and cultural hubs for Black Americans. Open for half a century in Des Moines’ Woodland Heights neighborhood, Harlan’s Barbershop was no exception.


In 1968; that same year Harlan’s opened, Urban Renewal projects and I-235 construction led to widespread demolition cutting through prosperous black neighborhoods, which displaced thriving Black businesses, churches, and communities in the Center Street district, not far from Woodland Heights, forcing Black residents to leave their homes, churches, schools, and friends. Center Street's collapse also severely disrupted the thriving music scene. Before Urban renewal, Center Street was home to a booming jazz and blues music scene. 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 spent 47 years running his barbershop until it closed in 2015. For many Black residents displaced by redlining and urban renewal projects, the shop became an institution.


In 2022 Steven Wilke-Shapiro, a longtime architect and member of the Des Moines Urban Design Review Board, purchased Harlan’s barbershop, completed the landmarking process of the 110-year-old building, and created a new office for his firm, Sequel Architecture. “We are just caretakers of this building, reading the next chapter of the space and honoring the story.” Wilke-Shapiro shared.



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