Norma Merrick Sklarek, FAIA

A career of “firsts” helps pave the way for future designers

With César Pelli, FAIA, Sklarek designed the Pacific Design Center in the early 1970s, creating an unforgettable West Hollywood landmark. (AIA Archives)

The daughter of a medical doctor and a seamstress, Norma Merrick Sklarek, FAIA, was born in New York City on April 15, 1926. Raised in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, she excelled in math, science, and fine arts as a student at the selective Hunter College High School. Her father taught her carpentry skills and, seeing her interest in both math and the visual arts, suggested she become an architect.

 

After a year at Barnard College, she studied architecture at Columbia University, receiving a B.Arch in 1950 as one of two women and the only African American in her class. She struggled to find work after graduation, facing rejection from nearly 20 different architecture firms before taking an engineering position with the New York Department of Public Works. She secured her architecture license in 1954—passing the four-day exam on her first try—and within a year was working for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), one of the era’s most well-recognized architectural and engineering firms. While at SOM, she taught several nights a week at City College of New York. In 1959, she became the first African American woman member of AIA.

Sklarek relocated to California in 1960, accepting the position of vice president for Gruen Associates in Los Angeles. Becoming the firm’s first female and first African American director in 1966, she worked closely with César Pelli as she headed Gruen’s production department. She would stay with the firm for two decades, coordinating major projects such as the Pacific Design Center, San Bernardino City Hall, Leo Baeck Temple, and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

 

After becoming the first African American woman elected the to AIA College of Fellows in 1980, Sklarek worked with Welton Becket Associates on Terminal One at the Los Angeles International Airport, in advance of the 1984 Olympic Summer Games. With architects Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond, she cofounded Siegel, Sklarek, and Diamond in 1985—creating one of the largest women-owned firms at the time. Wishing to focus on larger projects, she joined Jerde Partnership four years later and retired with the California firm in 1992. In her retirement, she served on the California Architects Board and chaired the AIA National Ethics Council. Sklarek received the Whitney Young Award in 2008.