Biography of Norma Merrick Sklarek, FAIA

First African-American Woman Registered Architect (1926-2012)

The Blue Whale with Lighted Stairwell (1975) at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood
The Blue Whale with Lighted Stairwell (1975) at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. Photo by Robert Landau / Corbis Documentary / Getty Images

Architect Norma Merrick Sklarek (born April 15, 1926 in Harlem, New York) worked behind the scenes on some of the largest architectural projects in America. Notable in architectural history as the first African-American woman registered architect in New York and California, Sklarek was also the first Black woman to be elected to the prestigious Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA).

In addition to being the production architect for many high-profile Gruen and Associates projects, Sklarek became a role model to many young women entering the male-dominated architecture profession.

Sklarek's legacy as a mentor is profound. Because of the disparities she faced in her life and career, Norma Merrick Sklarek could be sympathetic to the struggles of others. She led with her charm, grace, wisdom, and hard work. She never excused racism and sexism but gave others the strength to deal with adversities. Architect Roberta Washington has called Sklarek "the reigning mother hen to us all."

Norma Merrick was born to West Indian parents who had moved to Harlem, New York. Sklarek's father, a doctor, encouraged her to excel in school and to seek a career in a field not normally open to females or to African-Americans. She attended Hunter High School, an all-girls magnate school, and Barnard College, a woman's college associated with Columbia University, which did not accept women students.

In 1950 she earned a Bachelor of Architecture degree.

After receiving her degree, Norma Merrick was unable to find work at an architecture firm. She took a job at the New York Department of Public Works, and while working there from 1950 to 1954 she passed all of the tests to become a licensed architect in 1954.

She was then able to join the New York office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), working there from 1955 until 1960. Ten years after earning her architecture degree, she decided to move to the West coast.

It was Sklarek's long association with Gruen and Associates in Los Angeles, California where she made her name within the architecture community. From 1960 until 1980 she used both her architectural expertise and her project management skills to realize the many multi-million dollar projects of the large Gruen firm—becoming the firm's first female director in 1966.

Sklarek's race and gender often were marketing detriments at the time of her employment with major architectural firms. When she was a director at Gruen Associates, Sklarek collaborated with Argentina-born César Pelli on a number of projects. Pelli was Gruen's Design Partner from 1968 to 1976, which associated his name with new buildings. As Production Director, Skarek had immense responsibilities but was rarely acknowledged on the finished project. Only the U.S. Embassy in Japan has acknowledged Sklarek's contributions—the Embassy website stated that "The building was designed by César Pelli and Norma Merrick Sklarek of Gruen Associates of Los Angeles and constructed by Obayashi Corporation," as straightforward and matter-of-fact as Sklarek herself.

After 20 years with Gruen, Sklarek left and from 1980 until 1985 becameVice President at Welton Becket Associates in Santa Monica, California. In 1985 she left the firm to establish Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond, an all-woman partnership with Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond. Sklarek is said to have missed working on the large, complicated projects of previous positions, and so she finished her professional career as Principal at the Jerde Partnership in Venice, California from 1989 until 1992.

Also known as Norma Merrick Fairweather, "Sklarek" was the name of Norma Merrick's second husband, architect Rolf Sklarek, whom she married in 1967. It becomes understandable why professional women often keep their birth names, as Merrick changed her name again in 1985—she was married to Dr. Cornelius Welch at the time of her death, February 6, 2012.

Why Is Norma Merrick Sklarek Important?

Sklarek's life has been filled with many firsts:

  • First African-American woman to be licensed as an architect in New York (1954) and in California (1962)
  • In 1959, the first African-American woman to become a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA)
  • In 1980, the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the AIA (FAIA)
  • In 1985, helped establish and managed the California firm Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond

Norma Merrick Sklarek collaborated with design architects to transform building ideas from paper to architectural realities. Design architects usually receive all the credit for a building, but just as important is the production architect who sees the project to completion. Austrian-born Victor Gruen has long been credited with inventing the American shopping mall, but Sklarek was ready to carry out the plans, making changes when necessary and solving design problems in real time. Sklarek's most significant project collaborations include City Hall in San Bernardino, California, Fox Plaza in San Francisco, CA, the original Terminal One at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in California, Commons - Courthouse Center in Columbus, Indiana (1973), the "Blue Whale" of the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles (1975), US Embassy in Tokyo, Japan (1976), Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles and the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

As an African-American architect, Norma Sklarek more than survived in a difficult profession—she thrived. Raised during America's Great Depression, Norma Merrick developed an intelligence and tenacity of spirit that became an influence to many others in her field. She proved that architecture profession has a place for anyone willing to persist at doing good work.

In Her Own Words:

"In architecture, I had absolutely no role model. I'm happy today to be a role model for others that follow."

Sources: AIA Architect: "Norma Sklarek, FAIA: A Litany of Firsts that Defined a Career, and a Legacy" by Layla Bellows; AIA Audio Interiew: Norma Merrick Sklarek; Norma Sklarek: National Visionary, National Visionary Leadership Project; The Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation at www.bwaf.org/dna/archive/entry/norma-merrick-sklarek; Embassy of the United States, Tokyo, Japan at http://aboutusa.japan.usembassy.gov/e/jusa-usj-embassy.html [Websites accessed April 9, 2012]; "Roberta Washington, FAIA, Makes A Place," Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation [accessed February 14, 2017]