A Woman to Know: Norma Merrick Sklarek

Architecture should be working on improving the environment of people in their homes, in their places of work, and their places of recreation. — Norma Merrick Sklarek

Architecture should be working on improving the environment of people in their homes, in their places of work, and their places of recreation. — Norma Merrick Sklarek

(image via The National Museum of African American History and Culture)

In 1954, Norma Sklarek became the first Black female licensed architect in the United States.

Norma spent her childhood in Harlem and Brooklyn. Her parents encouraged their daughter’s interest in the “masculine” subjects normally off-limits to girls: math, science and physics. In 1950, after graduating from Columbia University, she began her first job, at the New York Department of Public Work.

Four years later, frustrated at the lack of opportunity and seemingly stuck in the same rut despite promises from management, she decided to take the architecture exam and get her own license. She aced it.

From there, her career flourished. She worked at a prestigious firm in New York and taught architecture courses at community college. The American Institute of Architects invited her to become its first Black female member in 1959 (20 years later, she’d be elected the group’s first Black female fellow).

In 1960, she moved to Los Angeles, where she designed landmarks like the Pacific Design Center and Santa Monica Place. In 1962, she took the architecture exam in California, becoming the state’s first licensed Black woman architect.

Norma’s career went international. She designed the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Terminal One at LAX and the United States Embassy in Tokyo. In 1985, she became a founding partner of Siegel-Sklarek-Diamond, at the time the largest all-female architectural firm in the country.

By the time she passed away in 2012, Norma received numerous honorary degrees and accolades. Friends remembered her expansive collection of 200 epiphyllum orchids and the annual garden soiree she hosted to show them off. Upon her death, Norma’s husband watched the orchids bloom and organized “Norma’s last epiphyllum party” in celebration of her life.

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