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Meet Norma Merrick Sklarek: The First Licensed African-American Female Architect

She’s been called the "Rosa Parks of Architecture."

norma sklarek
Photography by: Courtesy of the American Institute of Architects (AIA)

In 2008 Norma Merrick Sklarek received the prestigious Whitney M. Young Jr. Award by the AIA. Board member Anthony Costello called Sklarek the “Rosa Parks of Architecture.”

Norma Merrick Sklarek was a woman of many firsts. Starting in 1954, she was the first African American woman to earn an architecture license in New York, then 12 years later she became the first in California. In 1959, she was the first black female to become a member of the American Institute of Architects, where in 1980 she was the first to be elected fellow, a highly prestigious honor. And, these are just a sprinkling of her accomplishments.

 

As someone who paved the way — often the only female or the only African American in her workplace — Sklarek didn’t have a mentor of her own. So, as her career progressed, she dedicated herself to providing what was absent during her trajectory to others. She took budding female and minority architects under her wing, providing guidance and counsel. Architect Roberta Washington called Sklarek "the reigning mother hen to us all."

 

Sklarek shined from the beginning, despite the odds being stacked against her. She was born in Harlem in 1926 to West Indian parents. Her father, a doctor, encouraged her to think beyond the careers usually considered appropriate for women and African Americans. He saw her aptitude for both math and design and suggested she pursue architecture.

 

She went to Barnard where she received a Bachelor of Architecture degree, but was rejected by the 19 firms she applied to after graduation. Being a female architect was rare, being a black architect was even more so. "They weren't hiring women or African Americans, and I didn't know which it was [working against me]," Sklarek said in a 2004 interview.

 

Eventually, she took a job at the New York Department of Public Works, but felt her true skills were being underused. She simultaneously studied for the architecture licensing exam and passed on her first go — starting her pioneering streak for African American women.

 

Finally, Sklarek landed a job at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, a prestigious firm where she worked for five years, before moving to California and taking a job at Gruen Associates, where she stayed for two decades. Sklarek was the only black woman at the firm, but despite the scrutiny she felt at first, this is where she really began to make a name for herself in the world of architecture. She eventually became the firm's, yes, first female director.

 

While many architects are the faces of projects, Sklarek worked behind-the-scenes as a production architect. She collaborated with design architects, then took their vision and made them a reality. Marshall Purnell, a former president of the American Institute of Architects, has said Sklarek was more than capable of designing, but it was unheard of to have an African American female in that client-facing role. But Sklarek’s son, David Merrick Fairweather, says his mother considered designing the building the easy part, and enjoyed the challenge of bringing a project to fruition. “She would make it real,” he said. “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.”

 

However Sklarek saw her role, she excelled in it. She was responsible for the building of landmark projects like the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, the Pacific Design Center and Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport, to name a few. In 1985, she made history once again when she and fellow architects Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond launched one of the largest female-owned architectural firms in the country, and she became the first black woman to start an architectural firm.

 

With a career that never seemed to slow down – she was on more boards and committees than seem humanly possible –  Sklarek still always found time to mentor those following in her footsteps. “In architecture, I had absolutely no role model,” she said. “I’m happy today to be a role model for others that follow.” In 2008, the AIA gave her the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award, which recognizes architects embodying the profession’s responsibility to address social issues. She passed away that year at the age of 85, with so many beautiful buildings, as well as the Howard University Norma Merrick Sklarek Architectural Scholarship Award, living on in her honor.

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