187 - Norma Sklarek: An Extremely Bold Hand

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Norma Sklarek (1926-2012) had many “firsts”. She was often credited at the start of her career as the first Black Women architect to be licensed in the United States. That distinction actually goes to Beverly Greene – Norma was the 3rd. But it didn’t matter. Young Black girls read her name in the likes of Ebony Magazine – a staple publication in Black households at the time – when she was included in their 1958 article on “Successful Young Architects.” As more and more discovered her career, she became their role model.

Born in 1926, in Harlem, Sklarek was the only child of Walter Ernest Merrick, a doctor, and Amy Merrick, a seamstress, both of whom had immigrated from Trinidad. She grew up in Harlem and Brooklyn, and attended predominately white schools, including Hunter College High School, a selective public school for girls, where she excelled in math and science and showed talent in the fine arts. Her aptitude for math and art prompted her father to suggest architecture as a career.

She attended Barnard College and the School of Architecture at Columbia University. Many of her classmates were veterans of World War II, some had bachelor’s or master’s degrees . “The competition was keen,” she said. “But I had a stick-to-it attitude and never gave up.”

After graduating from Columbia, Sklarek faced discrimination in her search for work as an architect, applying to and being rejected by nineteen firms. In 1954 she took the architecture licensing examination, passed it on her first try and became the first licensed African American woman architect in the state of New York.

In 1955, Sklarek was offered a position in the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. During this period, she was a single mother of two children. Her mother cared for her children while Sklarek worked. 1959, she became the first African American woman member of the American Institute of Architects. In 1960, after five years at SOM, she took a job at Gruen Associates in Los Angeles. She also served on the architecture faculty at University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California.

in 1985, she cofounded 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 was the first African American woman to co-own an architectural practice.

This story was produced by New Angle: Voice of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation with host Cynthia Phifer Kracauer, AIA. Podcast production by Brandi Howell.

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