Today, we celebrate Norma Merrick Sklarek, a trailblazer who paved the way for future generations of Black women in architecture. Sklarek was the first African American woman to become a licensed architect in both New York and California, and her career spanned over five decades. Sklarek’s groundbreaking career spanned over five decades, during which she collaborated on some of Southern California’s most significant projects and co-founded the largest woman-owned architectural firm in the United States.
Despite graduating from Columbia University with a Bachelor of Architecture in 1950, Sklarek faced significant obstacles in her search for work as an architect due to discrimination. She worked as a junior draftsperson for the City of New York’s Department of Public Works before taking the architecture licensing exam in 1954. Sklarek passed the exam on her first try, becoming the first African American woman to receive a license to practice architecture in New York.
In 1960, Sklarek moved to Los Angeles, where she became the first African American woman to receive an architectural license in California. Throughout her career, Sklarek collaborated on some of Southern California’s most significant projects, including the California Mart, the Pacific Design Center, the Fox Hills Mall, and Terminal One at LAX. Her contributions to the Embassy of the United States in Tokyo also helped to establish her as one of the most influential architects of her time.
In addition to her many professional achievements, Sklarek was a dedicated mentor and leader. In 1959, she became the first African American woman to join the American Institute of Architects (AIA). She was awarded a fellowship by the AIA in 1980, becoming the first African American woman to receive this honor. Sklarek also co-founded the firm Siegel Sklarek Diamond in 1985, which was the largest woman-owned architectural firm in the United States at the time.
Sklarek’s groundbreaking achievements and mentorship of young architects of color have left a lasting legacy in the field of architecture. Today, she remains an inspiration for all those who aspire to break barriers and create a more equitable world. To learn more about Sklarek’s extraordinary life and career, you can read about her many achievements on the website of the National Organization of Minority Architects.
To hear directly from Sklarek about her early career, you can watch this short video interview where she shares her inspiring journey as a Black woman in architecture.