The Architect Who Persisted
How one woman broke race and gender barriers in 1950s America
Architect Norma Merrick Sklarek achieved a number of firsts, starting in 1954, when she became the first African American woman to earn an architecture license. The following year, she was hired by SOM’s New York office — her first position at an architecture firm. From there, Sklarek went on to build a distinguished career. She rose to leadership roles at several design firms and eventually founded her own practice. In 1980, she was the first black woman to be elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. On the occasion of Black History Month, we look back at Sklarek’s remarkable journey.
Born in New York City, Sklarek studied at Barnard College, and later at Columbia University’s School of Architecture. She graduated in 1950, as one of only two women in her class to earn a bachelor’s degree in architecture.
Setting out to find a job, Sklarek applied and was rejected 19 times. Women in architecture firms were scarce, and people of color rarer still. “They weren’t hiring women or African Americans, and I didn’t know which it was [working against me],” Sklarek recalled in a 2004 interview. She persisted and eventually found a position with the city’s engineering department, working there while she prepared for the grueling architecture licensing exam, which she passed on her first try. License in hand, she was hired at SOM and worked in the New York office for five years, before she moved to Los Angeles.
On the West Coast, Sklarek’s career thrived at various Los Angeles design firms, including Gruen Associates and Welton Becket and Associates. During these years she worked on such prominent projects as the Pacific Design Center, in West Hollywood, and Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport. In 1985, she cofounded Siegel Sklarek Diamond, which became one of the largest women-owned architecture firms in the United States. She later became a principal at Jerde Partnership, working there until her retirement in 1991.
Throughout her professional life, Sklarek remained a tireless educator and mentor, committed to sharing her experiences with students and younger colleagues. She served on the faculty at UCLA and lectured at many schools of architecture, including USC, Columbia, Iowa State, and Howard University. She also chaired the AIA National Ethics Committee.
Norma Merrick Sklarek died in 2012, leaving behind an indelible legacy. Her achievements continue to inspire women at SOM and throughout the design profession.
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