Norma Merrick Sklarek, FAIA | “The Rosa Parks of Architecture”

August 20, 2020 @ 1:08 am

Norma Merrick Sklarek (1926-2012), often referred to as the “Rosa Parks of architecture,” was a trailblazer for black women in architecture. She was not only the first black woman to be licensed as an architect in New York, but was also the first in California. She was the first black woman to gain membership in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and later became that Institute’s first black female Fellow. In 1985, she became the first black woman to co-own an architecture firm (Siegel Sklarek Diamond), which was, for its time, the nation’s largest women-owned architecture firm.


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Trailblazing architect Norma Merrick Sklarek, the first African American woman licensed in both New York and California, worked for a number of high-profile firms- including SOM, Gruen Associates, and Welton Becket Associates- over a career that spanned almost five decades. In 1985, she co-founded Siegel Sklarek Diamond, the largest woman-owned firm at the time. Sklarek’s accomplishments and projects are too long to list here but above is one of her most recognizable- the Pacific Design Center, her collaboration with Cesar Pelli (Los Angeles, 1975). #normasklarek #siegelsklarekdiamond #thebluewhale (Photograph: Gruen Associates) #pomo #postmodernism #postmodern #recentpast #modernarchitect

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Born in Harlem in 1926 to immigrant parents, Sklarek received her B.Arch from the Columbia School of Architecture in 1950 – one of only two women and the only African American in her class. Her attempts to launch a career however were met with great resistance, as she was rejected by the first nineteen firms to which she applied, before finally taking a position as a draftsperson in the NYC’s Department of Public Works.


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Norma Merrick Sklarek (1926-2012) was the first black woman to become a licensed architect in both New York (1954) and California (1962). She’s designed notable buildings from California to Japan, including the US Embassy in Tokyo. Pictured: Commons-Courthouse Center, Columbus, Ind., 1973 #AreaWestRealty #BlackHistoryMonth #NormaMerrickSklarek #BlackArchitects #AtlantaRealtor #AtlantaRealEstate #AtlantaRealty #AtlantaRealtors #BlackWomenArchitects

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It took her five years to land a position worthy of her talents at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Here she was given more responsibility on larger-scale projects. During this time, she also began teaching architecture courses at NYC Community College. Then, in 1960, she moved to Los Angeles where she began work at Gruen Associates.


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“Called the ‘Rosa Parks of architecture,’ [Norma Merrick Sklarek] was raised by Trinidadian parents in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She would become a trailblazer in both New York and California, and was the first female architect to be licensed in both states.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ During the Depression, her father, a carpenter, suggested she look into architecture, a career she doggedly pursued despite difficulty finding employment. She was one of two female students in her 1950 graduating class at Columbia University, and was rejected 19 times before finding her first job.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ After a stint at the New York Department of Public Works in the 1950s, Sklarek went on to work for a string of high-profile firms, including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Gruen and Associates, and Welton Becket Associates, where she oversaw the massive $50-million renovation of Terminal One at Los Angeles International Airport before the 1984 Olympics. The next year, she co-founded Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond with Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond; it was the largest women-owned firm of its day.” – @curbed⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ 📷: Norma Merrick Sklarek at the Los Angeles office of Gruen Associates. Photo courtesy Gruen Associates.

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Thoughout her twenty-year stint at Gruen, Sklarek faced extra scrutiny as the only black woman at the firm. Her work, however, spoke for itself and she rose through the ranks, eventually becoming Gruen’s Director of Architecture. In this role Sklarek oversaw major projects such as the California Mart and the Fox Plaza – a building made famous as the Nakatomi Plaza in the 1988 film Die Hard.


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Sunny Fox Plaza (a.k.a. Nakatomi Plaza)

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In her collaborations with fellow Gruen-architect Cesar Pelli, Skarlek helped design and oversaw the construction of the US Embassy in Tokyo, the San Bernardino City Hall, as well as the Pacific Design Center – one of Los Angeles’ great, iconic structures.


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Today’s the day for some Norma! Merrick! Sklarek! Sklarek graduated from @columbiagsapp in 1950 and became one of the first licensed black female architects in the US in 1954. After 19 rejections in NYC, she was finally hired by @skidmoreowingsmerrill. Over in Los Angeles, she worked for Victor Gruen, Welton Becket, and Jon Jerde on projects such as Terminal 1 at LAX, the @pacificdesigncenter, the American Embassy in Tokyo, among many others. In 1985, she founded the first black female architecture firm called Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond. There are so many firsts with Norma! Truly a pioneering woman, and one we don’t remember often enough. But I shudder at the artifice crafted through these American Dream narratives where we glorify people who’ve overcome insurmountable odds and only then do we assign them value. Norma was amazing but so are so many other POC who cannot even access the spheres to navigate these precarious, back-breaking professional worlds (because the world isn’t designed for them to succeed). And I hope we can all do more to honor and uplift the BIPOC who simply exist and survive. #normamerricksklarek #blacklivesmatter

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Throughout all this, Sklarek still found time to teach Architecture at both UCLA and USC.

Following her time at Gruen, Sklarek took on a VP role at Welton Becket Associates, where she was lead the $50-millon design and construction of LAX’s Terminal One. She then founded Siegel Sklarek Diamond, whose projects included the Tarzana Promenade, a remodel of the Lawndale Civic Center, among many other commercial and institutional buildings.


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Los Angeles Terminal 1 concourse (opened 1984) by Norma Merrick Sklarek at Welton Becket Associates. 📷 kingair42 on Flickr. #airportarchitecture

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Dissatisfied with the scope of projects Siegel Sklarek and Diamond was able to secure, Sklarek left her firm after a few years to join the Jerde Partnership where she worked on the Mall of America.

Though she retired her practice in 1992, Sklarek continued her focus on educating and mentoring younger women and POC architects throughout the rest of her life. “In architecture, I had absolutely no role model. I’m happy today to be a role model for others that follow.”


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Our clocks are set + there’s a spring in our step. It’s time for some shopping + fun! #DaylightSavings

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She served as a lecturer at Columbia University, as well as at Howard University, which, to this day offers the Norma Merrick Sklarek Architectural Scholarship Award to aspiring architects of color. She also served on a number of boards and committees such as the California Architects Board, and the AIA National Ethics Council, and as the director of both the USC Architects Guild and the Los Angeles AIA.


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Honoring a great woman architect and the first African American architect licensed in New York and California-Norma Merrick Sklarek. Working first for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1955. Then moving on as the first female and black female director at Gruen and Associates, she collaborated with Cesar Pelli on multiple projects. She holds many firsts, such as first black woman to graduate Columbia University School of Architecture 1950. The first black woman member of the AIA 1959 and later named first (fellow)FAIA in 1980. photo 1 and 3 from PINUP magazine photo 2 is from my copy of African American Women Knowledge Cards #normamerricksklarek #skidmoreowingsmerrill #sanbernardinocityhall #cesarpelli #gruenandassociates #gruenassociates #africanamericanhistorymonth #blackhistorymonth #womanarchitect #blackwomanarchitect #africanamericanarchitect #modernism

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Sklarek died in her home in Pacific Palisades in 2012 at the age of 85, but not before being awarded the Whitney M Young Jr. Award by the AIA in recognition of her “embodiment of the profession’s responsibility to address social issues.” Her legacy lives on in her many architectural works, and in the generation of architects of color she inspired and fostered.