A Litany of Firsts

By Crosbie Roper

In an age of such great opportunity and advancement in the field of architecture, it’s easy to forget those who blazed the trails and cleared the path for us. So during Black History Month, I’d like to take a moment to highlight the bold career of Norma Merrick Sklarek.

San Bernardino City Hall, San Bernardino, CA

Born at the onset of the Depression in Harlem, New York, Norma was the daughter of two West Indian-raised parents. She attended Barnard College, then later enrolled at Columbia University’s School of Architecture, which only accepted a handful of women each year. In 1954, after taking and passing the licensing exam on her first try, she became the first African American woman to be licensed in the US. 

Fox Plaza, San Francisco, CA

In 1959, Norma became the first African American woman to become a member of the American Institute of Architects. And decades later in 1980, she became the first woman to be elected a fellow of the AIA. 

Mall of America, Classic Wing, Minnesota

After moving to Los Angeles and establishing her career, she helped create and manage the firm Siegel Sklarek Diamond, becoming the first black woman to form her own architectural firm, and the largest all-woman owned and staffed architectural firm in the US. 

Siegel Sklarek Diamond

These moments are pivotal in their own right, however, there’s another layer of hardship that made Norma the influence she is today. Sklarek’s race and gender often were marketing detriments at the time of her employment with major architectural firms, and often excluded her from recognition of her work on architectural projects. 

While she was a director at Gruen Associates, Sklarek collaborated with Argentina-born César Pelli on a number of projects, to which his name was the only one listed as the architect. Only the U.S. Embassy in Japan acknowledges Sklarek's contributions to these collaborations. 

US Embassy, Tokyo, Japan

Much has changed since Norma’s time as an architect. Today, of the nearly 250,000 working architects in the U.S., nearly 10,000 of them are African American. Norma Merrick Sklarek helped foster that change as an example through her direct efforts to make a difference, pave the way, and be the first.  

Pacifc Design Center, West Hollywood, CA

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

Norma Merrick Sklarek