Norma’s love of architecture was rooted in her passion for art, the sciences and math. After a year at Barnard College she enrolled at Columbia University’s School of Architecture, an accomplishment all on its own considering that Columbia only accepted a handful of women each year. Still, Norma thrived at the school, eventually shocking school administrators in 1954, by passing the grueling four-day New York licensing exam on her first try. After graduation and several attempts to land work with a private firm, Sklarek took a civil service job with the Department of Works for New York City.
But Sklarek had higher ambitions. She didn’t like her work for the city, and soon she was pounding the pavement again, looking for a job in architecture. Her search took her to Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, a high-profile outfit in New York. She stayed there four years, before packing up again, this time for the west coast at Gruen Associates in Los Angeles.For Sklarek, the new firm proved to be everything she’d hoped it would be. From 1960 to 1980 she was director of architecture at Gruen Associates in Los Angeles, passing her California license in 1962, the first black woman to do so. In 1967 she married fellow Gruen architect Rolf Sklarek. In 1966 she became the first female African American member of the American Institute of Architects and became Gruen Associates director. In that position, and later as vice president of the Welton Becket firm, she left her mark on several important projects including the behemoth 2.5 million square foot fashion center known as California Mart & the Fox Plaza in San Francisco.
Sklarek’s race and gender often were marketing detriments at the time of her employment with major architectural firms. While a director at Gruen Associates, Sklarek collaborated with César Pelli on a number of projects. Only the U.S. Embassy in Japan has acknowledged Sklarek’s contributions (“The building was designed by César Pelli and Norma Merrick Sklarek of Gruen Associates of Los Angeles and constructed by Obayashi Corporation.”).
In 1980, Sklarek broke through another barrier when she was honored with a fellowship by the American Institute of Architects, becoming the first black woman to receive the honor. In 1980, she joined the Los Angeles firm of Welton Becket where she was project director for the $50 million domestic passenger Terminal One at Los Angeles’ LAX (the expansion timed to accommodate travelers to the 1984 Summer Olympics). Sklarek made history yet again in 1985, when she teamed up with fellow architects Margot Siegal and Katherine Diamond to form one of the largest female-owned architectural firms in the country—Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond—becoming the first African-American woman to establish and manage an architectural firm. Four years later she became a principal at Jerde Partnership, retiring in 1991.
Other major projects include the Downtown Plaza in Sacramento; the all glass Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles; the Queens Fashion Mall, in Queens, New York; the Fox Plaza in San Francisco; the Wilshire La Brea Metro Rail station, and the Los Angeles campus of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandizing (FIDM).
Much has changed since Sklarek first started working. Of the nearly 250,000 working architects in the U.S., nearly 10,000 of them are African-American. For obvious reasons, Sklarek has helped foster that change both as an example, and through her own direct efforts to make a difference.In addition to teaching several graduate courses at colleges such as UCLA, Columbia and Arizona State University, she’s authored several pieces, including “Women in Architecture” for the Encyclopedia of Architecture & Construction. Sklarek also chaired the AIA National Ethics Council.Her work has not gone unnoticed. Howard University has an architecture scholarship in her name, and in 2008 Sklarek was honored with the Whitney Young Jr. Award at the AIA National Convention in Boston. The recognition is given to one architect annually who best exemplifies “the profession’s responsibility toward current social issues.”
Sklarek was married to Cornelius Welch, with whom she had three children. She died of heart failure in Pacific Palisades, on February 6, 2012, in Los Angeles, California. Her legacy as the first licensed African-American architect still remains.Following her retirement, she was appointed by the governor to serve on the California Architects Board. She also served for several years as chair of the AIA’s National Ethics Council. A former president of the AIA said of her: “She was capable of doing anything. She was the complete architect.”
“Quote:“In architecture, I had absolutely no role model. I’m happy today to be a role model for others that follow.”