Norma Merrick Sklarek (April 15, 1926 – February 6, 2012) was a pioneering African-American architect. Sklarek was the third black woman to be licensed as an architect in the United States after Georgia Louise Harris Brown (IL, 1942) and Beverly Loraine Greene (IL, 1949). She was the first woman to become a licensed architect in the states of New York (1954) and later the first woman to be licensed in the state of California (1962). She remained the only licensed black woman in California until 1980. Author Anna Lewis calls her “The Rosa Parks of Architecture”.
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. Sklarek was the first African American woman in the country to become a licensed architect. After she attained her license in 1954 she worked at a small private firm. Starting in 1955, she worked for five years at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. While working at SOM she taught two nights a week at City College of New York.
In 1960, Sklarek moved to California after accepting the position of first female vice president for Gruen and Associates in Los Angeles, where she worked for two decades. In 1966 she became the firm’s first female and first African-American director. Sklarek worked closely with César Pelli and she headed that firm’s production department. At Gruen, Sklarek was responsible for hiring and overseeing staff. She was responsible for coordinating the technical aspects of several major projects including 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.
From 1980 to 1985, Sklarek worked at Welton Becket Associates where she directed the construction for Terminal One at the Los Angeles International Airport. Sklarek was the project director for the $50-million project. Terminal 1 was completed in January 1984, “well ahead of the millions of tourists expected for that summer’s Olympics.” Sklarek became the first black woman to be elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1980.
In 1985 she co-founded Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond with Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond. 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”.
Wishing to work on larger projects, she left Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond in 1989. Sklarek joined the Jon Jerde Partnership, as a Principal until her retirement in 1992.
Following her retirement, she was appointed by the governor to serve on the California Architects Board. She also served for several years as chair of the AIA’s National Ethics Council. A former president of the AIA said of her: “She was capable of doing anything. She was the complete architect.”
Photo: Gruen Associates