Norma Merrick Sklarek
Written by Roberta Washington, FAIA
Early Life and Education
Considered the “Rosa Parks of Architecture” (by AIA Board Member Anthony Costello, FAIA), Norma Sklarek boasts an incredible legacy of pioneering on behalf of African American women in the field of architecture. Born in Harlem in New York City on April 15, 1926 to West Indian parents; her mother was a seamstress and her father was a doctor. Realizing her exceptional math and design skills, Sklarek attended a selective public school for girls, the Hunter High School. She then attended Barnard College in New York as a prerequisite to matriculate into Columbia University’s School of Architecture. Graduating from Columbia in 1950 as one of two women, she became one of the first African American woman to graduate with an architecture degree. She passed away on February 6, 2012 in Pacific Palisades, CA.
Career in Architecture
After graduating, Sklarek found it difficult to find a job as an architect, so she took a civil service job in the city’s engineering department. Sklarek became a licensed architect in 1954 as the first African American woman to pass the exam in the state of New York. A year later, Sklarek was hired at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, one of the largest firms in New York City where she worked with engineering systems.
In 1960, Sklarek moved to California and was hired by Gruen Associates. There she worked on large scale government buildings such as the American Embassy in Tokyo and the City Hall of San Bernadino in California. She advanced to the head of the architectural department and stayed with the company for 20 years. Sklarek became licensed in California in 1962.
In 1980, Norma joined Welton Becket Associates as a vice president and became the project director for Passenger Terminal One at Los Angeles International Airport. Five years later, she joined forces with two other women and created the firm Siegel, Sklarek and Diamond.
Between 1989-92, Sklarek became a principal at Jon Jerde Inc., now the Jerde Partnership. During her time there and prior to her retirement, she worked on the country’s largest mall, the Mall of America in Minnesota.
Major Buildings and Projects
- Fox Plaza (San Francisco, CA)
- Park Center Commercial Complex, (San Jose, California)
- The U.S. Embassy, (Tokyo, Japan)
- California Mart
- San Bernadino, California’s City Hall
- Pacific Design Center (Los Angeles)
- Leo Baeck Temple
- Terminal One at the Los Angeles International Airport
- Columbus, Indiana’s Courthouse Center
- Mall of America, (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
Press and Awards
- Received fellowship to the American Institute of Architects for outstanding architectural contribution as the first African American woman to receive this honor (1966)
- Appointment to the California Architects’ Board by the governor of California (2003)
- Recipient of the AIA’s Whitney M. Young, jr. Service Award for Social Action for her long list of trailblazing activities, first African American woman to receive this award (2007)
- Honored by the Goodwill Board of Governors for her work on behalf of the disabled
- Honored by the National Organization of Minority Architects
- Recipient of the Association of Black Women Entrepreneurs’ Outstanding Business Role Model Award (1987)
- Honored by the Black Women in Sisterhood for Action
- Mentioned in: Summers, Barbara, ed. 1989. I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. Photos and Interviews by Brian Lanker, Workman Publishing.
- Master Juror for the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards’ Leadership and Assistance (1987)
- Part time lecturer at UCLA’s Graduate Architecture Program (6 years)
- Guest lecturer at Hampton University, Columbia University, University of Southern California, Iowa State University, and Howard University
- Held positions on the board of directors of the Los Angeles AIA, the USC Architectural Guild
- Former commissioner to the California Board of Architectural Examiners
- Technical advisor for the 5th edition of the Architectural Graphic Standards.