Norma Merrick Sklarek - the First Black Female Architect in the US


Today we continue our celebration of Women's History Month with a look at Norma Merrick Sklarek. She was the first licensed Black female architect in the United States. She worked on buildings such as Terminal One of the Los Angeles International Airport, San Bernardino City Hall, Fox Plaza in San Francisco, the American Embassy in Tokyo, Pacific Design Center, Mall of America and much more.

Norma Merrick was born on April 15, 1926, in Harlem, New York, to Dr. Walter Ernest and Amy Willoughby Merrick. She was an only child. Her father was a doctor, and her mother was a seamstress. Both of her parents came to America from Trinidad. She grew up in Harlem and Brooklyn and attended predominantly white schools including Hunter College High School, a public selective high school for girls. In high school she excelled in math and science as well as fine arts. Her father always pushed her to think about careers out of the norm and suggested architecture to her. In 1944 she attended Barnard College for one year. Then she transferred to the School of Architecture at Columbia University. She found the university hard. She commuted and often was struggling to finish assignments on the train or alone at home. The other students often worked and studies together. She was one of two females and the only Black student that graduated in 1950. 

After graduation she dealt with discrimination as well. It was hard to find a job since they were not hiring women or Blacks. She took a junior draftsman position for the New York City's Department of Public Works. In 1954 she decided to take the examination to be licensed as an architect. It is a four-day test and she passed on the first try. This made her the first licensed Black female architect in the state of New York (and by some references in the US). In 1955 she accepted a position at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. She was a single mother during this time. She had been married and divorced twice and had two children. Her mother watched the children while she worked. She also served on the faculty for the architecture school of New York City College. In 1959 she became the first Black women to become a member of the American Institute of Architects. 

Archstone Fox Plaza2
Fox Plaza in San Francisco
Source: J. Ash Bowie, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1960 Norma relocated to California, taking a job with Gruen Associates in Los Angeles. One of her sons was already living there. She was the only Black employee. When she began, she did not have car and got rides with a white colleague who tended to run late. Her supervisor noticed her tardiness right away and reprimanded her for it. He did not notice the white man's tardiness and he had been working there for two years. In 1962, she became a licensed architect in California, the first Black woman to do so. She rose in the ranks at Gruen. She worked on many jobs including the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, California Mart, Fox Plaza in San Francisco, Pacific Design Center, and San Bernardino City Hall.

San Bernardino City Hall, 2009
San Bernadino City Hall Source: Amerique, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1967 she married Rolf Shlarek who also worked at Gruen. She also served on the faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. She worked hard with her students and wanted to be a role model to other Black women. She would tutor them and help them study for the licensing exam. 

American Embassy in Tokyo Source: Rs1421, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1980 she was the first Black woman elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects. This is the highest honor for an architect. She was the first woman to be elected in the Los Angeles chapter. In 1980 she also joined Welton Becket Associates as vice president. She was responsible for the Terminal One project at Los Angeles International Airport. 

In 1984, Rolf died. A year later she married Dr. Cornelius Welch. In 1985 she co-founded the largest women owned (at the time) firm, Siegel Sklarek, Diamond. She became the first Black woman to establish and manage an architectural firm. She left the firm four years later to join the Jerde Partnership to work on larger jobs again. She worked on the Mall of America in Minneapolis and other large jobs. 

Mall of America 15
Mall of America Source: Runner1928, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

She retired from practice in 1992. She continued to lecture at different universities across the country. In 2003 she was appointed on the California Architectural Board. She served on many boards at this time. In 2008 she was honored by the American Institute of Architects with the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award. On February 6, 2012, Norma died of heart failure in her home in Pacific Palisades, California. Throughout her life she broke barriers and created paths for Black women and women in general. She also served as a role model to many. 

To teach kids about this amazing woman, I found a few books that share Norma's story. A couple of them are for older kids and adults but since they are just short bios on Norma, they will work for most middle school and up. 

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