Visionary STEM Leader
Norma Merrick Sklarek
April 15, 1926 – February 6, 2012
Norma Merrick Sklarek grew up in Harlem and Brooklyn, NY and attended predominately white schools, including Hunter College High School, a selective public school for girls, where she excelled in math and science and showed talent in the fine arts. She attended Barnard College for a year (1944–45), gaining the minimum of one year of liberal arts education that was a prerequisite for admission to the School of Architecture at Columbia University.
After graduating from Columbia, Sklarek faced discrimination in her search for work as an architect, applying to and being rejected by nineteen firms. She took a civil service job as a junior draftsperson in the City of New York’s Department of Public Works. She took the architecture licensing examination in 1954, becoming the first licensed African-American woman architect in the state of New York.
In 1955, Sklarek was offered a position in the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. In 1959, she became the first African-American woman member of the American Institute of Architects. In 1960, after five years there, she relocated and took a job at Gruen Associates in Los Angeles.
In 1962, she became the first black woman licensed as an architect in California. Sklarek rose to the position of Gruen’s director of architecture, responsible for hiring and overseeing staff architects and coordinating technical aspects of major projects, including the California Mart, Fox Plaza, Pacific Design Center, San Bernardino City Hall, and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. She stayed at Gruen for twenty years. She also served on the architecture faculty at University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Southern California.
In 1980, Sklarek was the first African-American woman elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects for her outstanding contributions to the profession, the first woman in the Los Angeles chapter to be awarded this honor. That same year, she joined the Los Angeles firm Welton Becket Associates as a vice president, where she was responsible for Terminal One at Los Angeles International Airport, a $50 million project that she completed before the start of the 1984 Olympic Games.
In 1985, she cofounded the woman-owned firm, Siegel Sklarek Diamond, with Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond. At the time, it was the largest woman-owned architectural firm in the United States, and Sklarek was the first African-American woman to co-own an architectural practice. The firm’s projects included the Tarzana Promenade, a 90,000-square-foot medical and retail center; remodeling of the Lawndale Civic Center; and additions to schools and other institutional buildings. Sklarek left Siegel Sklarek Diamond after four years because she and her partners were not able to get commissions for large-scale projects. She joined the Jerde Partnership as principal of project management. At Jerde, she worked on the Mall of America in Minneapolis and other significant projects.
In 2003, Sklarek was appointed to the California Architects Board, on which she served on the Professional Qualifications Committee and the Regulatory Enforcement Committee.
- Barnard College, 1944-1945
- B. Arch., Columbia University, 1950
Special Affiliations, Awards, and Honors
- Licensed Architect, State of New York, 1954
- Licensed Architect, State of California, 1962
- Fellow, American Institute of Architects, 1980
- Association of Black Women Entrepreneurs’ Outstanding Business Role Model Award, 1987
- California Architects Board, 2003
“The competition was keen. But I had a stick-to-it attitude and never gave up.”