Norma Merrick Sklarek was a pioneering American architect. The first African-American woman to become a licensed architect in the states of New York (1954) and California (1962). Until 1980, she remained the only licensed black woman in California.
For overcoming the double hurdle of being both African-American and female in a predominately white male profession, Author Anna Lewis called her “The Rosa Parks of Architecture.”
Sklarek was the first African-American in almost 100 years to be honored by the American Institute of Architects with fellowship for outstanding architectural contribution.
Born on April 15, 1926, in Harlem, New York, Sklarek was the only child of Walter Ernest Merrick, a doctor and Amy Merrick, a seamstress, both of whom had emigrated from Trinidad. She grew up in Harlem and Brooklyn, and attended predominately white schools including Hunter College High School.
She attended Barnard College for a year (1944–45), gaining the minimum of one year of liberal arts education that was a prerequisite for admission to the School of Architecture at Columbia University. By her account, architecture school was difficult but she was resilient and prevailed. She graduated from Columbia in 1950 with a B.Arch., one of two women and the only African-American in her class.
After graduating from Columbia, Sklarek faced discrimination in her search for work as an architect, applying to and being rejected by 13 firms. “They weren’t hiring women or African Americans, and I didn’t know which it was [working against me],” she told a local newspaper in 2004.
Feeling her talents and skills were underused in the city position at the Department of Public Works, she took the architecture licensing examination in 1954, passing it on her first try and becoming the first licensed African-American woman architect in the state of New York.
In 1955, Sklarek was offered a position in the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). At SOM, she was given more responsibility on increasingly large-scale projects, and she also taught evening architecture courses at the New York City Community College.
During this period, she was a single mother of two children, having been married and divorced twice; her mother cared for her children while Sklarek worked. In 1947, she married Dumas Flagg Ransom, a law student at Wagner College, with whom she had a son, Gregory Merrick. She married again in 1950, to Benjamin Fairweather, with whom she had another son, David Merrick Fairweather.
In 1959, she became the first African-American woman member of the American Institute of Architects.
In 1960, after five years at SOM, she relocated and took a job at Gruen Associates in Los Angeles. At Gruen, she was aware of extra scrutiny from her supervisor, as she was the only black woman in the firm. As a new employee without a car, she took rides to work with a white male colleague who was consistently late.
“It took only one week before the boss came and spoke to me about being late. Yet he had not noticed that the young man had been late for two years. My solution was to buy a car since I, the highly visible employee, had to be punctual,” she said.
In 1962, she became the first black woman licensed as an architect in California. Sklarek rose to the position of Gruen’s director of architecture, responsible for hiring and overseeing staff architects and coordinating technical aspects of major projects, including the California Mart, Fox Plaza, Pacific Design Center, San Bernardino City Hall, and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.
Like many women architects in corporate firms, for most of her career Sklarek served as a project manager rather than design architect, although she is credited, with Cesar Pelli, as design architect on the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.
Her collaboration with Pelli resulted in several late modern icons, such as the Pacific Design Center and the San Bernardino City Hall. According to Marshall Purnell, a former president of the American Institute of Architects, she was more than capable of designing large projects, but “it was unheard of to have an African American female who was registered as an architect. You didn’t trot that person out in front of your clients and say, ‘This is the person designing your project.’”
She believed that “architecture should be working on improving the environment of people in their homes, in their places of work, and their places of recreation. It should be functional and pleasant, not just in the image of the ego of the architect.”
She stayed at Gruen for 20 years, during which time she married her third husband, Rolf Sklarek, an associate at Gruen, who died in 1984. She also served on the architecture faculty at University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California.
For years, Sklarek’s race and gender often excluded her from recognition of her work on major architectural projects.
In 1980, Sklarek was the first African-American woman elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects for her outstanding contributions to the profession, the first woman in the Los Angeles AIA chapter to be awarded this honor.
That same year, she joined the Los Angeles firm Welton Becket Associates as a vice president, where she was responsible for Terminal One at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), a $50 million project that she completed before the start of the 1984 Olympic Games.
Her next professional affiliation broke more barriers when, in 1985, she cofounded the woman-owned firm, Siegel Sklarek Diamond, with Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond. At the time, it was the largest woman-owned architectural firm in the United States, and Sklarek was the first African-American woman to co-own an architectural practice.
Sklarek left Siegel Sklarek Diamond after four years because she and her partners were not able to get commissions for large-scale projects, and she missed the income and challenges they brought. She joined the Jerde Partnership as principal of project management. At Jerde, she worked on the Mall of America in Minneapolis and other significant projects. She retired from the practice in 1992.
During the 1990s, Sklarek mentored younger minority and women architects. Colleagues such as Marshall Purnell, Katherine Diamond, and others credit her for mentoring them by example and encouraging their success.
“In architecture, I had absolutely no role model. I’m happy today to be a role model for others that follow.”
In 2003, Sklarek was appointed to the California Architects Board (CAB). In 2008, the AIA honored her with the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award, which recognizes an architect or organization embodying the profession’s responsibility to address social issues.
In her honor, Howard University offers the Norma Merrick Sklarek Architectural Scholarship Award.
On February 6, 2012, Sklarek died of heart failure at her home in Pacific Palisades, California, aged 86.