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Two large display windows allowed passersby on foot or in streetcars to marvel at the decorative displays of canned goods and fresh produce assembled to entice.

Not sexy by today’s grocery standards, but Hulett’s neighborhood store was practical and efficient — just what was needed in the early years of the Great Depression.

“It was the heyday of the corner grocery,” says John Zeller, local research historian. “Every neighborhood of 1,000 people could support one.”

In the back of the store two butchers in blood-splattered aprons sliced fresh cuts to order.

Hulett stood behind a polished maple counter, crushing out his cigarettes on the wood plank floor beneath his feet, ringing up sales on an ornate brass cash register with a hand crank and a bell that rang each time the money drawer opened.

Some customers simply signed for their groceries. “Regular customers had running accounts,” explains Zeller.

“The grocer kept track and mailed invoices at the end of the month. If you paid your bill, he sold you groceries.”

Today, 80 years later, many Iowa towns harbor one of these small commercial buildings — once upon a time a bank, a cafe, a tavern, a grocery store — but it often sits dilapidated, unloved, and unused.

Renovation can cost more than building from scratch, leading to demolition. Those that don’t meet the wrecking ball are sometimes “remuddled” beyond recognition.

“Much of Iowa’s architectural heritage exists in small communities and Main Streets,” says Michael Wagler, state coordinator with Main Street Iowa, a division of the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA).

“These buildings help define the history and mystique of a place. While every old building isn’t itself a historic landmark, it is the collection of these structures that makes up our link to the past.

Our built environment is irreplaceable. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

The grocery before renovation began (top, left) and an early imagining of the refurbished building (above). Drawing by Steve Wilke-Shapiro.

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