Women Of Black History: 5 Things To Know About Norma Merrick Sklarek, First Licensed Black Female Architect

February 9, 2017  |  

To be the first to do something is never easy, but to be the first to do it and be a Black woman? Now those are real obstacles. Still, such hurdles only drove Norma Merrick Sklarek to break down major barriers and obtain a great deal of success. As her parents told her when she was growing up in New York, “things that are worthwhile and from which one receives great satisfaction are never easy, but require perseverance and hard work.” Still, her contributions to architecture and Black history in general can often be overlooked, this despite the fact that she has contributed to some iconic buildings and projects around the world. Here are five things to know about Norma Merrick Sklarek, the woman some call the “Rosa Parks of Architecture.”

Her Father Encouraged Her to Be Open to Jobs Not Traditionally Open to Women

Born in 1926, the daughter of a doctor (who practiced medicine) and a seamstress mother from the West Indies, Norma was encouraged to pursue interests outside of what people considered appropriate for women during the time. During the Great Depression, she was taught carpentry skills by her father. He recommended that she use her talents to get into architecture. She did well in school, excelling at Columbia University when they only accepted a few women into their program per year. She was one of only two women to obtain her architecture degree from Columbia in 1950.

First Black Woman to Be Licensed as an Architect in the U.S.

In 1954, she was the first Black woman to become a licensed architect after passing the New York exam on her first try. This blew a lot of people’s minds considering that it was a behemoth of a licensing exam. The thing is four days long! Still, Sklarek struggled to find work after passing the test. “They weren’t hiring women or African Americans,” she told the Palisadian-Post back in 2004, “and I didn’t know which it was [working against me].” She eventually found an opportunity at the Department of Works in NYC before being hired by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Four years later, she made the big move all the way to Los Angeles and her career catapulted.

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She Worked on Quite a Few Pioneering Projects

When she became director of Gruen Associates and led the firm Welton Becket as vice president, Sklarek supervised and put together staff to work on some very notable projects. Those projects included the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, the California Mart, Fox Hills Mall, San Bernadino City Hall, and Terminal One at Los Angeles International Airport.

She Created the First Woman-Owned Architectural Firm

She became the first Black woman to create and manage an architectural firm when she co-founded Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond in 1985. Not only were the founders women, but a large chunk of those who worked for the firm were women. According to Inc., at one time, the company made proposals on five different projects and won all five commissions, which is pretty unprecedented.

She Wasn’t Allowed to Be Front and Center Designing Projects Early on in Her Career

While Sklarek didn’t get to design as many of the projects she worked on as she would have liked, it was made clear by those who knew her best that she was more than capable of doing so. However, being a Black woman held her back because “it was unheard of to have an African American female who was registered as an architect,” according to Marshall Purnell, a former president of the American Institute of Architects who spoke to the Los Angeles Times when Sklarek passed in 2012. “You didn’t trot that person out in front of your clients and say, ‘This is the person designing your project.’ She was not allowed to express herself as a designer. But she was capable of doing anything. She was the complete architect.”

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