Sklarek, Norma Merrick 1928–
Norma Merrick Sklarek 1928–
Norma Merrick Sklarek became the first African American woman licensed as an architect in the United States when she passed the New York state examinations for her profession in 1954. In a career that spanned over 30 years, she designed several large-scale projects, including the American Embassy in Tokyo and a terminal at Los Angeles International Airport.
Sklarek was born in 1928 in Harlem to parents of West Indian heritage. The family moved to Crown Heights in Brooklyn when she was a child, and her father, Walter, would eventually earn his medical degree from Howard University during her early years. As a child, Sklarek exhibited obvious passion and talent for the visual arts: she sketched, painted furniture, and even drew murals. She was an only child, and received a rather inordinate amount of encouragement. “Although both my parents adored me, I did lots of things with my father that ordinarily girls did not do—like going fishing, painting the house, and doing carpentry work,” she told Dorothy Ehrhart-Morrison in an interview for the book No Mountain High Enough: Secrets of Successful African American Women.
Sklarek excelled in school, especially in the sciences, and attended primarily white high schools in the New York public school system during the 1930s and 1940s. As she contemplated college and her future direction, she realized that the professional career options open to women were rather limited. Sklarek knew that she was not very interested in becoming a teacher or a nurse. “My grades were such that I could consider any profession, but I had an interest in art, the sciences, and math,” she recalled in the interview with Ehrhart-Morrison. “One day my father said to me, ‘What about architecture?’ I knew absolutely nothing about architecture, but it seemed to embody each of my interests, and I considered his suggestion.” The fact that there were few African Americans in the profession failed to deter her.
Entering Barnard College, part of New York’s Columbia University, Sklarek took one year of liberal-arts courses in preparation for applying to Columbia’s rigorous architecture program. As a freshman at Columbia, she encountered some typical first-year difficulties.
At a Glance…
Born April 15, 1928, in New York, NY; daughter of waiter Ernest (a physician) and Amelia Willoughby-Merrick; married in the early 1950s (divorced); married Rolf Sklarek (an architect; deceased, 1984); married Cornelius Welch (a physician), 1985; children: Gregory Ranson, David Rairweather, Susan. Education: Columbia University, B, Arch., 1950
Career Worked for New York City government, early 1950s; licensed as an architect in New York state, 1954; worked for a private firm, New York City, 1954–55; Skidmore, Owens, Merrill (architects), New York City, architect, 1955–60; Gruen and associates (architects). Los Angeles, CA, began as architect, 1960, director of architecture, 1966–80; Weidon, Becket, and Associates, Santa Monica, CA project manager, 1980–85; Sieged Sklarek, Diamond (architects), founding partner, 1985–89; Jerde Partnership, Venice, CA, prin-dipal, 1989–; has taught architecture at the City College of New York City and at the University of California at Los Angeles; commissioner on the California State Board of Architectural Examiners since 1970; University of Southern California Architects Guild, director, 1984–87.
Awards: Americans Institute of Architects, fellow, 1966
Member: American Institute of Architects (served as vice president of California chapter).
Addresses: Office-c/o The Jerde Partnership International, 913 Ocean front Walk, Venice, CA 90291
“I had a hard time because everything was so different from high school” she recalled in No Mountain High Enough. “I was working extremely hard just to stay afloat, not getting As, but just trying to pass the course. I spent the summer deliberating whether or not to return to Columbia in the fall. I decided to stay…. My parents’ only requirement was that I attend college near home. I wanted to go to Howard University in Washington, D.C., because I thought there was more social life at Howard, but my father wouldn’t think of it”
Sklarek persevered, and was accepted to the Columbia University School of Architecture. This was no small achievement, since only a certain number of female applicants were admitted into the program. She was, however, the youngest person in her class. After earning her degree in 1950, Skalrek applied for a job with 20 architectural firms, and was rejected each time. “I could never figure it out,” she told Ehrhart-Morrison. “I don’t know if the rejections were because I was a black person, because I was a young woman, or because of the economic recession at the time. Since I was turned down so many times in private industry, I went to work for the city of New York in a civil service job.”
Not yet a licensed architect, Sklarek worked for the city’s building department, but disliked the uncreative nature of the work. This experience motivated her to take the licensing examination for architects in New York state, a rigorous four-day test which few passed on the first try. Sklarek did pass on the first try and, in 1954, became one of a handful of African Americans in the profession. She was also the first African American woman to be licensed as an architect in the United States.
Sklarek quit her city job when she was hired at a private architectural firm. Initially, she was not given interesting assignments. For instance, she was responsible for designing all of the bathrooms in an office building. By this time, she had married and become the mother of two sons. Because it was the 1950s, an era preceding the enactment of equal employment opportunity laws, Sklarek faced many obstacles. On one occasion, she ran into some former colleagues from the municipal building department, who found it difficult to hide their astonishment when Sklarek told them about her new job. They told Sklarek that her former boss had written a harsh, unfavorable critique of her job performance. “He said that I was lazy, that I knew nothing about design and architecture, that I socialized, and that I was late every day,” she recalled in No Mountain High Enough. Sklarek remembered that her present employers had asked, during her job interview, whether she had had any problems with her former boss, and she replied truthfully that she had not. “I guess [the interviewer] figured that nobody could be that bad,” she told Ehrhart-Morrison, but the lesson was still a harsh one. “It taught me that it is possible to work next to somebody and not know that they hated you. 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.”
Sklarek spent a year with a small firm before being hired in 1955 by one of the country’s preeminent architectural firms, Skidmore, Owens, Merrill. She spent five years there, and found that issues of race and gender seemed nonexistent in the workplace. Sklarek’s responsibilities steadily increased, and she often handled a large workload. Her personal life, however, suffered a setback with the end of her marriage. As a working mother, she often sought the help of two aunts to care for her young sons.
Encouraged by her friends, Sklarek moved to California in 1960, and found work at another renowned firm, Gruen and Associates in Los Angeles. She was also licensed in architecture by the state of California in 1962. No other African American female would be licensed in architecture by the state of California for another 20 years. After six years at Gruen, Sklarek was named director of architecture, an executive position in which she supervised the work of several dozen architects. She was also named a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), becoming the first woman in the organization’s Los Angeles chapter to achieve that honor.
Sklarek remained with Gruen until 1980, when she took a job with a Santa Monica architectural firm, Weldon, Becket, and Associates. Five years later, she co-founded Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond, the largest architectural firm in the United States that was entirely owned by women. In 1989, she became a principal with the Jerde Partnership, yet another award-winning firm that is noted for its impressive design of public buildings. The Las Vegas Bellagio Hotel is one of the Jerde firm’s best-known works. Sklarek’s own notable designs include the American Embassy in Tokyo, Japan; Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles; Fox Plaza in San Francisco, and Terminal One of the Los Angeles International Airport.
Sklarek has taught architecture at both the City College of New York City and the University of California at Los Angeles. Active in the Los Angeles AIA chapter, she has also served as director for the University of Southern California Architects Guild. Since 1970, she has been a member of the commission of the California State Board of Architectural Examiners. After her second husband, architect Rolf Sklarek, passed away, Sklarek married physician Cornelius Welch in 1985, with whom she has a daughter, Susan. By the late 1990s, Sklarek was semi-retired and lived with her family in a home in Southern California, where she grows orchids and bromelia in her garden.
Ehrhart-Morrison, Dorothy, No Mountain High Enough: Secrets of Successful African American Women, Conari Press, 1997.
Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, Facts on File, 1993, p. 243.
Powerful Black Women, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, Visible Ink Press, 1996.
Cobblestone, August, 1988, p. 37.
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