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 mater
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 the first African American woman to pass her license exam to officially become an architect in both New York (1954) and California (1962).[1][2][3] Sklarek is most recognized for designing the United States Embassy in Tokyo, Japan in 1976 and the Terminal One station at the Los Angeles International Airport in 1984.[3] After designing several buildings, she became the first black woman to own her own architectural practice with two women Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond from 1985-1989.[3] She earned the nickname "The Rosa Parks of Architecture" from Author Anna M Lewis for her major accomplishments as a black woman in a male dominanted field and continued to be a voice for women who were likely to face discrimination in certain careers.[4]

Early life and education[edit]

Norma Merrick Sklarek was born on April 15, 1926 in Harlem, New York. Her parents, Dr. Walter Ernest Merrick and Amelia (Amy) Willoughby were a doctor and seamstress, from St. Vincent and Barbados.[4][5] She grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.[5] At a young age, Sklarek was closer to her father whom she received most of her training and ability from.[3][4][5] Maintaining a special father and daughter connection, Sklarek leaned towards architecture after being taught how to be hands-on in several activities and being exceptional in mathematics and science at Hunter College High School.[4][5][6]

After spending a year of her college career at Barnard College, Sklarek spent the following years at Columbia University where she majored and received her Bachelors in Architecture.[2][3] Throughout her college experience, Sklarek had many hardships in assimilating with her classmates.[3] She had to constantly face predominantly white students who had valuable degrees and formed relationships and study groups with other students to get ahead on assignments.[2][3] Dealing with these obstacles on her own, Sklarek took advantage of her isolation by working outside the classroom setting.[3] As a result, she graduated five years later with her degree in architecture as the only African American woman.[1][3][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][3] Unsatisfied with her four year job due to tedious expectations, Sklarek decided to take the architecture examination because she felt her job wasn't challenging her abilities.[3] As a result, she became the first African American woman in New York to become a licensed architect in 1954.[1][3] Within a year of attaining her license, she was hired at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill which exceeded her expectations in being hands on and testing her skill-set.[3][4] While working at SOM for five years, Sklarek took a second job and "taught evening architecture courses at the New York City Community College" to support her two children while her mother helped with family responsibilities.[3][4]

In 1960, Sklarek accepted the position of the first female vice president for Gruen and Associates in Los Angeles, where she worked for two decades.[3][5] While working at the company that was a big leap in her career, she experienced some discrimination within the work environment. As a modern representative who didn't have access to a vehicle, Sklarek's boss blamed her for her tardiness to work even though her white male colleague was responsible for driving and making them both late everyday.[1][3] As a result, she purchased her own car to put an end to the prejudicial treatment.[1][3]

Two years later, Sklarek became the first African American woman architect to be licensed in California in 1962.[1][3] Four years after being licensed, she also became the Gruen's first African American female director.[1][3] At Gruen, Sklarek's role involved supervising staff that she hired while also collaborating on other major projects simultaneously.[3] These projects included 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.[3][4][7] Even though she was an architect, "Sklarek served as a project manager rather than design architect, although she is credited, with César Pelli, as design architect on the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo".[3] Throughout her career as an architect, it was common for women to be unacknowledged in their work because it was a male dominating field that focused on their self-image. Whenever a client was introduced to an architect, the presence and name of a female architect was often kept unknown in order to keep businesses running.[3]

In 1980, after her departure from Gruen Associates, Sklarek became the first black woman to be elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) after being the first African American woman member in 1959.[1][3][5][8]

From 1980 to 1985, she also worked at Welton Becket Associateswhere she served as the project director of the $50-million construction for the Terminal One station at the Los Angeles International Airport.[3][4][9] Terminal 1 was completed in January 1984 just in time for "the millions of tourists expected for that summer's Olympics" during that year.[1][3][9] As years went on, renovations were enhanced.

After Welton Becket Associates in 1985, Sklarek developed her own practice where she co-founded Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond with Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond.[2][3][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."[7] Hoping to work on larger projects again, Sklarek left the firm in 1989.[1][3][8] She continued to mentor many young women who aspired to be architects, worked on designing the Mall of America, and joined the Jon Jerde Partnership, as a Principal until her retirement in 1992.[1][5]

Following her retirement, Sklarek was appointed by the governor to serve on the California Architects Board and served as chair of the AIA's National Ethics Council for several years.[4][7] A former president of the AIA said of her: "She was capable of doing anything. She was the complete architect."[1] Understanding that discrimination would play a major role in the architectural field as a female and African American, she remained determined and paved a way for future young women to do the same.


As she continued her career and received awards, she died from heart issues in 2012.[4][3]

Personal life[edit]

Sklarek had two sons named Gregory and David Fairweather as well as three marriages during her career.[1][5][3] As a single parent in the start of her career, her mother took the role of watching the children so she can begin her new profession.[3] After being known as Norma Merrick Fairweather in one of her marriages, she changed her last name to Sklarek in 1967 when she married Bauhaus graduate Rolf Sklarek, a Gruen architect whom she met at the Gruen Associates Firm.[2][3][4] Rolf Sklarek died in 1984 and she married Dr. Cornelius Welch a few years later.[1][3]

Honors and awards[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

Significant buildings[edit]

Although both Sklarek and César Pelli were responsible for designing the project in Gruen Associates, César Pelli was mainly accredited for this project, leaving Sklarek unrecognizable.[3] Her role was not only to design the building, but to serve a major purpose of supervising and hiring staff for the building.[3] Even though she has done a lot with her collaboration with Pelli, she often is not mentioned for this accomplishment.[3]

The Terminal One station at LAX was another major accomplishment by Sklarek with Welton Becket Associates in 1984 who served as the project director.[4] The Terminal One station was built along with the Tom Bradley International Terminal so people can travel overseas especially before attending the summer Olympics from July–August.[1][3][9] It is known for its extravagant architectural design that was a circular U shape. The $50-million station was constructed nearly two decades later to increase capacity.

Selected works[edit]

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]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Woo, Elaine. "Pioneering African American architect". Los Angeles Times, Feb. 10, 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g "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 i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al Morton, Patricia (2020). McLeod, Mary; Rosner, Victoria (eds.). "Norma Merrick Sklarek". Pioneering Woman of American Architecture. Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Lewis, Anna M. (2014). Women of Steel and Stone : 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers (First ed.). Independent Pub Group. pp. 52–59. ISBN 978-1613745083.
  5. ^ 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. pp. 18, 30, 150–52. ISBN 978-0943233987.
  6. ^ Metcalf, Doris Hunter (1996). Portraits of Outstanding African Americans. New Jersey: Good Apple. p. 28. ISBN 1564177173.
  7. ^ a b c "Legacy: A Pioneering African-American Architect". Retrieved 20 October 2016.
  8. ^ a b Kaplan, Victoria (2006). Structural inequality : black architects in the United States. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 124. ISBN 0742545830.
  9. ^ a b c d "New Terminals Boost Airport Capacity". Building Design & Construction. 26 (4): 68–74. April 1985. OCLC 2246731 – via EBSCOhost.
  10. ^ Griffith, Susan J. "Normal Merrick Sklarek". (website). Accessed Oct 27, 2015.

Further reading[edit]

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