Sklarek, Norma Merrick. 1994. Biographical materials for Norma Merrick Sklarek. Jerde Partnership. Architectural Biography Project. AIA Library and Archives.
Sklarek, Norma Merrick, and Wesley H. Henderson. 1994. African-American architects of Los Angeles Norma Merrick Sklarek. African-American Architects of Los Angeles. Oral History Program, University of California, Los Angeles. Center for African American Studies Library.
By Patricia Morton, University of California, Riverside
Lauded for her numerous pioneering achievements as one of the first African American women architects in the United States, Norma Merrick Sklarek (1926–2012) has been called the “Rosa Parks of architecture.”11When she was honored with the AIA Whitney M. Young Jr. Award in 2008, AIA Board Member Anthony Costello called her “the Rosa Parks of architecture.” Layla Bellows, “Norma Sklarek, FAIA: A Litany of Firsts that Defined a Career, and a Legacy,” AIArchitect. Her intelligence, talent, and tenacity allowed her to overcome racism and sexism and become a prominent architect and a leader in the profession.
Early Life and Education
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 immigrated from Trinidad. She grew up in Harlem and Brooklyn, and attended predominately white schools, including Hunter College High School, a selective public school for girls, where she excelled in math and science and showed talent in the fine arts. She had a particularly close relationship with her father, who spent time with her fishing, house painting, and doing carpentry. Her aptitude for math and art prompted her father to suggest architecture as a career.22Angela Black, “Sklarek, Norma Merrick.” African American National Biography, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e3731
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; many of her classmates were veterans of World War II, some had bachelor’s or master’s degrees, and they collaborated on assignments, whereas she commuted to school and struggled to finish her work on the subway or at home alone. As she said later, “The competition was keen. But I had a stick-to-it attitude and never gave up.”33Jack Travis, African American Architects in Current Practice (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991), 66. 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 nineteen 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 2004.44Quoted in Norma Merrick Sklarek obituary, “Pioneering African American Architect Was 85,” Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2012. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/feb/10/local/la-me-norma-sklarek-20120210 She took a civil service job as a junior draftsperson in the City of New York’s Department of Public Works.55“Norma Sklarek: Visionary Videos: NVLP: African American History.” Interview. http://www.visionaryproject.org/sklareknorma/ Feeling her talents and skills were underused in the city position, 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.66Black, “Sklarek, Norma Merrick.” After being registered, she worked for a brief time in an architectural firm, earning the position despite a bad reference from her supervisor at the Department of Public Works. She thought her boss’s negative reference had its roots in discrimination: “It had to be personal. He was not a licensed architect, and I was a young kid—I looked like a teenager—and I was black and a licensed architect.”77Dorothy Ehrhart-Morrison, No Mountain High Enough: Secrets of Successful African American Women (Berkeley, Calif.: Conari, 1997), 151. At her new firm, to her disappointment, she was given menial tasks such as designing bathroom layouts.88Ehrhart-Morrison, 151–52.
In 1955, Sklarek was offered a position in the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. 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.99Black, “Sklarek, Norma Merrick.” 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.1010In 1947, she married Dumas Flagg Ransom, a law student at Wagner College, with whom she had a son, Gregory Merrick Ransom (The New York Age, June 17, 1947, 7). She married again in 1950, to Benjamin Fairweather, with whom she had another son, David Merrick Fairweather (The New York Age, June 17, 1950, 7). “Norma Sklarek: Visionary Videos.” In 1959, she became the first African American woman member of the American Institute of Architects.1111Bellows, “Norma Sklarek, FAIA.” Beverly L. Greene, licensed in 1942, is believed to be the first African American woman in the United States licensed as an architect. Melissa Mitchell, “Research Project Spotlights African-American Architects from University of Illinois,” February 9, 2006. http://news.illinois.edu/news/06/0209architects.html
In 1960, after five years at SOM, she relocated and took a job at Gruen Associates in Los Angeles, where one of her sons was living.1212AIA Young Architects Forum, interview with Norma Sklarek, FAIA. May 15, 2008. Audio file. http://www.aia.org/akr/Resources/Audio/AIAP037892?dvid=&recspec=AIAP037892 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.”1313“Conversation: Norma Sklarek, FAIA.” Architecture California 7, no. 1 (January 1985): 22–23. 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.1414Norma Merrick Sklarek obituary, Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2012. Her son David Merrick Fairweather recalled how she considered the design of a building the easy part, but “she would make it real. What kind of concrete. What kind of nuts and bolts. What kind of glass. She was in production, and she would tell you production was the real work.”1515Jeff Bailey, “Legacy: Norma Merrick Sklarek, 1926 to 2012.” Accessed August 19, 2013. http://www.inc.com/magazine/201205/jeff-bailey/norma-merrick-sklarek-architect-legacy.html
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.1616http://aboutusa.japan.usembassy.gov/j/jusaj-usj-embassy-ref.html#21 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.’”1717Norma Merrick Sklarek obituary, Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2012. Nevertheless, her formidable technical skills and rigorous work ethic made her a brilliant project manager and propelled her ascension to a top position in the firm. 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.”1818“Norma Merrick Sklarek,” in Brian Lanker, I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America (New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989), 41. She stayed at Gruen for twenty years, during which time she married her third husband, Rolf Sklarek, an associate at Gruen, who died in 1984.1919Ibid. She also served on the architecture faculty at University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California.
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.2020Black, “Sklarek, Norma Merrick.” The firm’s projects included the Tarzana Promenade, a 90,000-square-foot medical and retail center, remodeling of the Lawndale Civic Center, and additions to schools and other institutional buildings.2121Nancy Rivera Brooks, “Women Architects Join to Build Career,” Los Angeles Times July 29, 1986. http://articles.latimes.com/1986-07-27/business/fi-1731_1_architecture-profession In the same year she started her firm, she married Dr. Cornelius Welch.
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 was engaged with public and professional service, lecturing at Howard University, Columbia University, and elsewhere, and mentoring 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.2222Bellows, “Norma Sklarek, FAIA.” While she herself had had no mentor, she felt an obligation to mentor to others. “In architecture, I had absolutely no role model. I’m happy today to be a role model for others that follow.”2323Lanker, 40. She coached aspiring architects for the state licensing exam, drawing on her own experience in passing the exam on her first attempt.2424“Norma Sklarek: Visionary Videos.”
In 2003, Sklarek was appointed to the California Architects Board (CAB), on which she served on the Professional Qualifications Committee and the Regulatory Enforcement Committee. She served on many professional boards and committees, including the California State Board of Architectural Examiners, the AIA National Ethics Council, and as a juror for the National Council of Architecture Registration Boards (NCARB).2525Black, “Sklarek, Norma Merrick.” She was director of the University of Southern California Architects Guild and a director of the Los Angeles American Institute of Architects. 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.2626James Murdock, “AIA Lauds Meier, Sklarek, and McKittrick.” Architectural Record 196, no. 2 (February 2008): 32. In her honor, Howard University offers the Norma Merrick Sklarek Architectural Scholarship Award.
On February 6, 2012, after a lifetime of extraordinary accomplishments and leadership in architecture, Sklarek died of heart failure at her home in Pacific Palisades, California, at age 85.