Part 20 of a month-long celebration of Women’s History Month
In a trailblazing list of firsts, Norma Merrick Sklarek (1926-2012) was the first black woman to be licensed to practice architecture in the US–specifically, in the states of New York and California (1954 and 1962, respectively)–and the first to be elected a fellow fo the AIA (1980). Born in Harlem, New York, Sklarek credited her father, a physician born in the Caribbean, for teaching her carpentry skills and inspiring her interest in architecture during the Great Depression. After high school, Sklarek attended Barnard College before completing her architecture degree at Columbia in 1950 with only one other woman as a classmate in the program. Yet her credential was not enough to overcome her race, and she failed to find work in an architecture office, even after applying to nineteen of them.
Instead, she went to work for the New York Department of Public Works until 1954, when she earned her architecture license. Soon thereafter she started her rise through the administrative structure of many of the country’s biggest firms. Her roles tended to be managerial, since design leadership required client presentations, which was still seen as an unacceptable role for a black woman, as her obituary attests. In 1955, Sklarek was hired at SOM and stayed there until her move in 1960 to Los Angeles to work at Gruen and Associates. During her two decades there, she earned high rank as director, working closely with César Pelli, who was partner there 1968–1976. At Gruen, Sklarek oversaw staff, coordinated major projects including the Pacific Design Center (1975, above), San Bernardino City Hall (1972), and Embassy of the US in Tokyo (1972), each of which is credited to Pelli. Between 1980 and 1985 she worked for Welton Becket Associates, directing the construction for Terminal One at LAX, for which she was given credit as project director. In 1985 Sklarek founded a female-led firm (Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond) that found quick success. Four years later she joined Jon Jerde Partnership as principal. She specialized in commercial developments and shopping malls (like the Mall of America, 1989) until her retirement in 1992.