In our February blog celebrating Black History Month, we highlighted Paul R. Williams, a prolific yet little known Los Angeles architect who, despite profound challenges, changed the skyline of southern California.
In honor of Women’s History Month, Studio Design Group architects would like to introduce you to Norma Merrick Sklarek, another iconic and influential California architect. Sklarek has been called the “Rosa Parks of architecture” for her many groundbreaking firsts as a prominent black female architect.
A Career of “Firsts”
Born in Harlem in 1926, Sklarek was the first Black woman to graduate from Columbia University School of Architecture in 1950. She was one of only two women in her graduating class, and the only black woman. In 1954, she was the first black woman to become a licensed architect in New York, and in 1962, the first in California. She became the first black woman member of the AIA in 1959 and was named a Fellow in 1980.
In 1985, she co-founded the woman-owned firm, Siegel-Sklarek-Diamond, with Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond. At the time, it was the largest woman-owned architectural firm in the United States, and Sklarek became the first African American woman to co-own an architectural practice.
These firsts matter to women, especially women of color, because Sklarek and others like her paved the way for those who came after, each bringing their own big dreams and personal challenges. The story of her career is filled with discrimination and disappointment, yet she never gave up, or gave in to the antiquated practices that tried to keep her down.
In 1975 she wrote, “As far as I know, I am the first and only Black woman architect licensed in California. I am not proud to be a unique statistic but embarrassed by our system which has caused my dubious distinction.”
A Lifetime of Persistence
While Norma was a young woman working towards her dream, two female architects had already taken their place as pioneers in the field: In 1942, Beverly Loraine Greene was the first black woman to become licensed in the United States, and in 1944, Louise Harris Brown became the second. But Sklarek was unaware of these women for much of her career, a fact that highlights the importance of championing the successes of our forbearers.
Before being hired for her first position at the Department of Public Works in New York, Norma Sklarek applied to and was rejected by 19 architecture firms. “They weren’t hiring women or African-Americans and I didn’t know which it was [working against me]” she told the L.A. Times in 2004.
It wasn’t until 1960, when Sklarek was hired by Gruen Associates, that her career really took off. At the time, women in architecture were rarely given the credit they earned. Like her female counterparts, Sklarek was known as the project manager instead of design architect for most of her building projects.
Throughout her extraordinary career, Sklarek worked not just as an innovator, but as a mentor. Understanding that others faced invisible barriers of their own, she taught night classes at a community college in New York and had a “standing invitation” to her office for students who needed additional instructional support. She endeavored to mentor others because she saw the importance of role models, something she never had.
Sklarek is credited for many important projects, including the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Japan; San Bernardino City Hall; Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles; California Mart, Los Angeles; and partnering with designers on the Mall of the Americas, Minneapolis, among many others.
Norma Sklarek believed that “architecture should be working on improving the environment of people in their homes, in their places of work, and their places of recreation. It should be functional and pleasant, not just in the image of the ego of the architect.”
It is so important to remember and acknowledge the trailblazers who came before us. Their experiences, struggles, and sacrifices can teach us much, if we take the time to learn about them. You can read more on Norma Merrick Sklarek’s life and projects here.
For more information on Studio Design Group architects and their work please visit our website, or reach out to us at 805-541-3848.