The Distinguished Career of Norma Sklarek: One of the First African-American Female Architects

NCARB is celebrating its centennial in 2019! As a part of the celebration, we will be posting articles from our archives to remember the history and evolution of the organization. Stay tuned for more glimpses into our past, present, and future, and follow along on social media with #NCARB100.

Often called the “Rosa Parks of architecture,” Norma Merrick Sklarek was one of the first African-American women to earn a license in the United States. In 2004, NCARB interviewed Sklarek about her upbringing, path to licensure, and involvement with the Architect Registration Examination® (ARE®).

When Norma Sklarek, FAIA, was appointed to the California Architects Board in fall 2003, she brought with her more than five decades’ worth of distinguished, often-unprecedented achievements as a practicing architect, teacher, and, above all, role model. In recognition of her many accomplishments, we offer a short timeline of Sklarek’s career, annotated by the architect herself.

April 15, 1928: Born in New York City, the only child of West Indian parents.

“My father was a doctor, and we lived my first six years in an apartment in Harlem. We then moved to a brownstone in Brooklyn. After I studied architecture, I converted that brownstone into six units. I still own it, and one of my two sons lives there and manages it.”

1940s: Attended Hunter High School.

“It was an all-girls magnet school in Manhattan. They only accepted girls from the five boroughs who had taken and passed exams in English and math. I think it was not only the best high school in New York City, but maybe the best high school in the United States.”

1950: Received a B.Arch. from Columbia University’s School of Architecture, after first attending Barnard College for one year.

“I wanted to study architecture and was advised that I had to have one year of college before going on to Columbia. My father would have preferred that I become a physician, but I didn’t like the sight of blood or being around sick people.”

1953: Passed the four-day, seven-part architecture exam.

“I took the whole exam in one week. I think it was 12 hours the first day and eight hours on subsequent days. I remember that the dean at Columbia was pleased and surprised that I passed the whole darn thing on my first try.”

1954: Became one of the first, if not the first, African-American women to be licensed in New York.

Upon graduation, Sklarek applied at 29 different architecture firms before landing a civil service job with the City of New York. “The firms in those days were not used to having women in their offices, and they were certainly not used to having African-Americans. They just said, ‘We’re not hiring at this time.’ After a year working for the city, I decided that civil service was not for me.”

Mid-50s: Landed a job at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

“One day, I was out walking on my lunch hour, and I ran across some people I knew from my first job. They asked what I was doing, and I told them I was working at SOM. They were surprised that I had gotten the job, because they had overheard my [old] boss giving me the worst possible recommendation. I guess he was angry, because I had passed the exam and he didn’t.”

1960: Moved to Los Angeles and joined Gruen Associates.

“When I left SOM for California, I had five letters of recommendation. At the first office I went to with one of those letters, I was hired. It was Victor Gruen’s firm, which was later to become well known as Gruen Associates. Pretty soon I was made the head of the architectural department, and I stayed there for 20 years. Victor Gruen was an interesting person, and he and his wife were great people to be around.”

1966: Became the first African-American woman to be licensed in California.

1980: Joined Welton Becket Associates as a vice president. Notable among her many projects as project director is the Passenger Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport.

“We were on a terrible deadline to finish it before the 1984 Olympics began.”

1980: Elected to the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows.

1985: Founding principal with two other women of Siegel-Sklarek-Diamond, one of the largest predominately female firms in U.S. history.

“I found that the possible liability risks were too great for me, so I eventually decided to move on.”

1989-92: Joined the Jerde Partnership as a principal in charge of project management.

“We lived in Santa Monica and this office was just 10 minutes from our house.”

2003: Chaired the AIA National Ethics Committee.

2000s: Served as a Master Juror for NCARB, supervising the grading of design and site planning divisions of the ARE.

Educating in the Office and in the Classroom

Sklarek also conducted numerous building design and site planning classes for ARE candidates. She explains, “I started coaching candidates at Gruen. I would meet with those who were studying for the exam and give them a lecture and a problem during [the] lunch hour. They had to present their solutions the following week, and I would go through them and give each one crit: ‘This,’ I would explain, ‘would pass, and this would not pass.’ And give them the reasons why. Soon the word spread to other offices, and more would come by and join us. Those who did the projects that I gave them generally passed the design exam.”

In addition to her office-level crits, Sklarek also taught graduate-level classes at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She says, “I made up the course. It was design with emphasis on following a program—a sort of mixture of design and construction documents. It was similar to the design portion of the licensing exam.” She also has lectured at Arizona State, Columbia, Hampton, Howard, Iowa State, Kansas State, Southern, Tuskegee, and Utah. Howard University established the Norma Merrick Sklarek Architectural Scholarship in her honor.

Asked to summarize her career, Sklarek explains, “Architecture has been good to me, and I recommend it to anyone who has the same interests as mine.”

A version of this article by Bill Houseman originally appeared in a 2004 edition of Direct Connection. Sklarek passed away in 2012.