Norma Merrick Sklarek

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Norma Merrick Sklarek
Norma Sklarek public domain.jpg
Norma Merrick

(1926-04-15)April 15, 1926
Harlem, New York, United States
DiedFebruary 6, 2012(2012-02-06) (aged 85)
Alma materBarnard College Columbia University School of Architecture
AwardsFellow, American Institute of Architects
PracticeSkidmore, Owings & Merrill; Gruen and Associates; Welton Becket; Siegel-Sklarek-Diamond

Norma Merrick Sklarek (April 15, 1926 – February 6, 2012) was a pioneering American architect. Sklarek was the first black woman to be licensed as an architect in the United States [1] after Beverly Loraine Greene (IL, 1942) and Georgia Louise Harris Brown (IL, 1949). She was the first woman to become a licensed architect in the states of New York (1954) and later the first woman to be licensed in the state of California (1962).[1][2] She remained the only licensed black woman in California until 1980.[3] Author Anna Lewis calls her "The Rosa Parks of Architecture".[4]

Early life and education[edit]

Norma Merrick was born on April 15, 1926 in Harlem, New York. She was the only child of Dr. Walter Ernest Merrick and Amelia (Amy) Willoughby, from St. Vincent and Barbados, respectively. Dr. Walter Merrick was a 1935 Howard University graduate practicing medicine, and Amy Willoughby was a seamstress.[3][4] She grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.[3] She remembered that her parents told her "things that are worthwhile and from which one receives great satisfaction are never easy, but require perseverance and hard work".[5] During the Great Depression her father taught her carpentry skills and suggested she become an architect.[3][4]

Sklarek attended Hunter College High School, an all girls high school in New York. She attended Barnard College and received her architecture degree in 1950 from Columbia University School of Architecture.[2] She was one of only two women in her graduating class.[1][4]


After receiving her degree, Sklarek was unable to find work at an architecture firm, so she took a job at the New York Department of Public Works from 1950 to 1954.[2] Sklarek was one of the first Black women in the country to become a licensed architect.[1] After she attained her license in 1954 she worked at a small private firm.[4] Starting in 1955, she worked for five years at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. While working at SOM she taught two nights a week at City College of New York.[4]

In 1960, Sklarek moved to California after accepting the position of first female vice president for Gruen and Associates in Los Angeles, where she worked for two decades.[3] In 1966 she became the firm's first female and first Black female director.[1] Sklarek worked closely with César Pelli and she headed that firm's production department. At Gruen, Sklarek was responsible for hiring and overseeing staff. She was responsible for coordinating the technical aspects of several major projects including the California Mart, Pacific Design Center, Fox Hills Mall, San Bernardino City Hall, Leo Baeck Temple and the Embassy of the United States in Tokyo.[1][6]

From 1980 to 1985, Sklarek worked at Welton Becket Associates where she directed the construction for Terminal One at the Los Angeles International Airport.[4] Sklarek was the project director for the $50-million project. Terminal 1 was completed in January 1984, "well ahead of the millions of tourists expected for that summer's Olympics."[1] Sklarek became the first black woman to be elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1980.[1][3][7]

In 1985 she co-founded Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond with Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond.[2][4] The firm was the largest woman-owned firm at the time. Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond put out proposals on five projects "and won all five commissions, an unheard-of batting average".[6]

Wishing to work on larger projects, she left Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond in 1989.[7] Sklarek joined the Jon Jerde Partnership,[1] as a Principal until her retirement in 1992.[1][3]

Following her retirement,[4] she was appointed by the governor to serve on the California Architects Board. She also served for several years as chair of the AIA's National Ethics Council.[8] A former president of the AIA said of her: "She was capable of doing anything. She was the complete architect."[1]

As an architect, Sklarek was tenacious and level headed. Understanding that discrimination would be an issue she faced all of her career, she decided to take it head on. Working at her second firm, Gruen Associates, she carpooled to work with a fellow, male employee who had been with the company for many years. Riding with this fellow employee she was late most days in her first couple of weeks. After a short amount of time she was approached by her boss even though her male counterpart, who had been late for many years, had never been approached. In response to this she told a California magazine, "My solution was to buy a car since I, the highly visible employee, had to be punctual." [1] She interviewed with Architecture magazine in October of 1991. The article she interviewed for also interviewed many other female architects. Sklarek's responses remained short and to the point, contrary to the other interviewee's. For instance in response to a question about perceivable "glass ceilings" within firms Sklarek stated, "If a woman is considerably better and more productive than her male counterpart, she can rise close to the top" while others submitted long paragraphs on their personal struggles with the "glass ceiling". [9]

Personal life[edit]

Sklarek is also known as Norma Merrick Fairweather.[2] Sklarek had two sons [1] named Gregory and David Fairweather.[3] In 1967, she married Bauhaus graduate Rolf Sklarek, a Gruen architect. After her second marriage she used the name Norma Merrick Sklarek as her professional name.[4] After Sklarek's death in 1984 she married Cornelius Welch.[1]

She died of heart failure on Feb. 6, 2012[4] in Pacific Palisades, California.

Selected works[edit]

Note: Sklarek's race and gender often excluded her from recognition of her work on major architectural projects. While a director at Gruen Associates, Sklarek collaborated with César Pelli on a number of projects. Only the U.S. Embassy in Japan acknowledges Sklarek's contributions.[2]

Awards, firsts and honors[edit]

In her honor, Howard University offers the Norma Merrick Sklarek Architectural Scholarship Award.

  • 1980 — American Institute of Architects Fellow (first Black woman)
  • 1985 — First Black woman to establish and manage an architectural firm
  • 1987 — Association of Black Women Entrepreneurs Outstanding Business Role Model Award
  • 1990 —Honorary Member of the Delta Sigma sorority
  • 2007 —Honored by the California State Legislature
  • 2007 — Honored by Goodwill Board of Governors for work on behalf of the disabled
  • 2007 — Honored by National Organization of Minority Architects
  • 2008 — Whitney Young Jr. Award Service Award for Social Action at the AIA National Convention in Boston


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Woo, Elaine. "Pioneering African American architect". Los Angeles Times, Feb. 10, 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Norma Merrick Sklarek - First Black Woman to Become a US Architect". 1928-04-15. Retrieved 2012-02-11.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Ehrhart-Morrison, Dorothy (1997). No Mountain High Enough : Secrets of Successful African American Women. Berkeley, CA: Conari. p. 18,30,150–152. ISBN 9780943233987.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Lewis, Anna M. (2014). Women of Steel and Stone : 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers (First edition. ed.). Independent Pub Group. pp. 52–59. ISBN 1613745087.
  5. ^ Metcalf, Doris Hunter (1996). Portraits of Outstanding African Americans (PDF). New Jersey: Good Apple. p. 28. ISBN 1564177173.
  6. ^ a b "Legacy: A Pioneering African-American Architect". Retrieved 20 October 2016.
  7. ^ a b Kaplan, Victoria (2006). Structural inequality : black architects in the United States. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 124. ISBN 0742545830.
  8. ^ a b Griffith, Susan J. "Normal Merrick Sklarek". (website). Accessed Oc.t 27, 2015.
  9. ^ Soloman, Nancy (October 1991). "Women in Corporate Firms". Architecture. 80.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ehrhart-Morrison, Dorothy, No Mountain High Enough: Secrets of Successful African American Women, Conari Press, 1997.
  • Harris, Gloria and Hanah Cohen, Women Trailblazers of California, History Press, 2012.
  • Summers, Barbara, ed. I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. Photos and Interviews by Brian Lanker. Workman Publishing, 1989.
  • Lewis, Anna M, Women of Steel and Stone, Chicago Review Press, Inc, 2014.

External links[edit]