Biographical / Historical
Norma Merrick Sklarek was a renowned architect and a woman of firsts who broke racial and gender barriers earning her place in the male-dominated world of architecture. She was the first Black woman member and esteemed fellow of the highly respected architectural professional organization, American Institute of Architects (AIA). Norma was distinguished in her career for leading challenging assignments and managing large, complex construction projects.
Norma Merrick was born April 15, 1926 to Dr. Walter Ernest Merrick, and Amelia (Amy) Willoughby in Harlem, New York City, New York. Her parents had emigrated from Trinidad, though her father was born in St. Vincent, West Indies. Norma's parents were a part of the first significant Caribbean immigration waves to the United States in the early 20th century. Arriving just a year before her birth, her parents saw possibility and education there. Her father, Walter attended Howard University and eventually became a physician. While her mother, Amy worked as a seamstress in a factory to make ends meet as Walter "wasn't much of a businessman" as described by Norma in an oral history interview. He practiced medicine in Harlem, New York. Norma stated that her father often served as a physician to African American celebrities such as Hazel Scott, Ethel Waters and Art Tatum. Walter was also a talented musician and carpenter that supported his daughter's love of art and math and encouraged her to pursue a career in architecture.
Around 1940, Norma was enrolled at the prestigious Hunter College High School for the intellectually gifted and "Ivy League-bound" young women. Excelling academically, Norma attended Barnard University, the prestigious women's college formerly administered by Columbia University. She attended Barnard initially in order to gain a year of a liberal arts education so that she could be accepted into then-known Columbia University School of Architecture. In 1947, she met and married, Dumas Flagg Ransom, law student at nearby Wagner University. She subsequently gave birth to her first son, Gregory Merrick Ransom shortly thereafter. She graduated from Columbia in 1950 with a Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.) degree. She was one of only two women and the only African American in her graduating class.
Despite her Columbia University pedigree, her race and gender made it predictably difficult to obtain employment. Norma easily recalls in an oral history interview later in life that she was turned down by nineteen prospective employers. It was on the twentieth interview with the Department of Public Works (DPW) that she was hired as a junior draftsperson for New York City. She passed her architecture licensing examination in 1954 becoming the first Black woman believed to be licensed to practice architecture in New York. Despite a poor recommendation from her DPW supervisor, she worked briefly at Katz, Waisman, Blumenkranz, Stein and Weber as a junior associate. She felt stifled and unchallenged and left that firm to do some rendering coloring work with notable New York architect, Bob Schwartz. In 1955, she started working at notable architectural firm, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM) in New York City where she was given larger-scale projects. At the same time, she taught architecture courses at New York City Community College (presently called the New York City College of Technology) located in Brooklyn, NY. She was the school's first woman faculty member. It was also during her tenure at SOM that Norma joined AIA and inadvertently became the organization's first African American woman member. She was a member of the Council for the Advancement of the Negro in Architecture, a New York-based group. During all this groundbreaking work, Norma was a twice-divorced mother of two sons with the birth of her second son, David Merrick Fairweather from her union with Benjamin Fairweather. Norma depended on the assistance of her family in raising her sons while she worked and advanced her career.
In an effort to advance her career, Norma moved to Los Angeles, California to work with architectural firm, Gruen Associates in 1960. A requisite for an architect in California, Norma became the first Black woman to be a licensed architect in the state. Gruen Associates, founded by visionary Austrian architect Victor Gruen, was notable for their pioneering work with shopping malls and multi-use buildings. At Gruen, in 1965 she earned the director of architecture position where she was responsible for hiring and overseeing multiple staff members as well as serving as project manager on several high-profile projects for the firm.
Her projects included the high-rise multi-use building California Mart (1963), now known as California Market Center; skyscraper Fox Plaza (1966) in San Francisco and some of Norma's most notable work for Gruen, The Pacific Design Center (1975), a multi-use facility utilized by the California's bustling apparel and fashion industry. Norma's contributary design is affectionately known by California's locals as the "Blue Whale." Norma worked on the latter project with Gruen's lead architect at the time, Cesar Pelli, known for some of the world's tallest buildings, most notably World Finance Center (Brookfield Place) in New York City. Pelli also shared his credit with Norma for her exemplary contribution to the renovation and redesign of the San Bernardino City Hall (1972) in California as well as their work on the U.S. Embassy (1976) in Tokyo, Japan. While at Gruen, Norma married Rolf Sklarek, a fellow architect at the firm. She also taught architecture courses at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Southern California (USC). At UCLA, she was the first African American member of the faculty.
In 1980, she was finally recognized for all of her trailblazing and innovative work, when she became the first African American woman elected to the AIA College of Fellows. The highest honor within the architecture profession. This prestigious award gave her assurance that she could take her career to another level. She departed Gruen for Welton Becket & Associates, a prominent California firm renowned for iconic music and cultural centers, including the iconic Capitol Records building in Los Angeles. Norma was appointed as the vice president of the firm and lead project manager on one of her most notable works, Terminal One at the Los Angeles International Airport. She was recognized for the timely completion of the project as preparation for the influx of travelers to Los Angeles the for the 1984 Olympic Games. Norma also suffered the loss of her husband, Rolf Sklarek, the same year.
It was her work from the Los Angeles Airport project that empowered Norma to break yet another barrier. 1985 proved to be significant year as she became first African American woman to found and co-own a woman-owned architectural firm. Norma collaborated with fellow veteran architects Margot Siegal and Katherine Diamond to create Siegel-Sklarek-Diamond (SSD). SSD was one of the largest woman-owned architecture firms at the time. Their largest project was the Tarzana Promenade, a 90,000 sq. ft. medical and retail center, and the remodel and renovation of the Lawndale Civic Center; both located in California. Norma also designed work for the proposed Marva Collins Preparatory School in Compton, CA. The school was named after seminal educator, Marva Collins that had revolutionized education for low-income students in a crime-ridden area in Chicago, Ill. The hope was the replicate Collins' important work for children in Compton.
Being a new firm amidst the prevalence of racism and sexism within the profession left SSD at a disadvantage. Their projects were mainly residential and smaller commercial projects that didn't bring the income and accompanying challenges like larger scaled projects. Sklarek left SSD in 1989 for Jerde Partnership, an established innovator in the design and construction of shopping malls around the world. Norma was hired as the principal on the project management for the design and construction of the Mall of America. Located in Bloomington, Minnesota, it is considered to be the largest shopping mall in United States.
In 1992, Norma retired from the profession but did not resign herself to stop working. Norma became an active advocate in broadening the profession to include more women and people of color. She focused her work on teaching, lecturing, and mentoring. Over the years, she served as faculty and lecturer at several universities including UCLA, USC, University of Iowa, Kansas State University, California Polytechnic as well as her alma mater Columbia University. In an effort to inspire Black architects, Norma regularly lectured at HBCUs including Howard University, Hampton University, Tuskegee University, and Southern University.
Sklarek's work was recorded and recognized by the black press and publishers, such as her being included in Ebony magazine as early as 1958, in their article on "Successful Young Architects." In 2008, the AIA awarded her with the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award that recognizes architects who represented the profession's responsibility to address social issues. She also served on multiple professional boards and committees, such as the California Architects Board, Professional Qualifications Committee, California State Board of Architectural Examiners, the AIA National Ethics Council and many more.
On February 6, 2012, Sklarek died in the Pacific Palisades, California at the age of 85. She was survived by her husband Cornelius Welch, whom she married in 1985; her son, David Merrick Fairweather, stepdaughter Susan Welch as well as three grandchildren. She was predeceased by her son Gregory Merrick Ransom in 2006.
Norma Merrick was born to Amy Willoughby and Walter Merrick in Harlem, New York.
Graduated from Hunter College High School, New York, NY
Attended Barnard College, New York, NY
Attended Columbia University in New York City earning a bachelor's degree in architecture (B.Arch.).
Married Dumas Flagg Ransom and had son, Gregory Merrick Ransom. They later divorced.
Married Elwyn (Benjamin) Fairweather and had son, David Merrick Fairweather. They later divorced.
Worked at the Department of Public Works, New York, NY
Licensed in the state of New York; believed to be the first black woman architect licensed in New York
First African American woman member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
Worked at Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill in New York, NY
Architecture faculty member at New York City Community College, Brooklyn, NY
Married Francis "Harry" Pena in New York, NY.
Moved to California and began working at Gruen Associates and served as the Director of Architecture until 1980.
First African American woman architect licensed in California
Sklarek coordinated the design and construction of the California Mart, Los Angeles, CA.
Sklarek coordinated the design and construction Fox Plaza in San Francisco, CA.
Sklarek divorced Pena and married Rolf Sklarek, a fellow architect at Gruen Associates.
Sklarek coordinated the design and construction of the Park Center Commercial Complex in San Jose, CA .
Sklarek coordinated the design and construction of the San Bernardino, City Hall in San Bernardino, CA.
Sklarek coordinated the design and construction of Commons-Courthouse Center in Columbus, IN.
Served as faculty member in the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Planning
Sklarek coordinated the design and construction of the U. S. Embassy in Tokyo, Japan.
Sklarek coordinated the design and construction of Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, CA.
First African American woman fellow of the AIA
Worked as VP and project manager at Welton Becket & Associates in Santa Monica, CA
Sklarek working with Welton Becket Associates coordinated the design and construction of Terminal One at the Los Angeles International Airport, Los Angeles, CA.
Rolf Sklarek died in February.
Sklarek along with Margot Siegal and Katherine Diamond formed their own firm, Siegel- Sklarek-Diamond.
Sklarek married Dr. Cornelius Welch.
Left the Siegel-Sklarek-Diamond and joined The Jerde Partnership, in Venice, CA, as the principal project manager.
Sklarek coordinated the design and construction of the Mall of America in Minneapolis, MN.
Retired from The Jerde Partnership
Served as commissioner on the California State Board of Architectural Examiners
Awarded American Institute of Architects' Whitney M. Young Jr. Award
Norma Merrick Sklarek died in the Pacific Palisades, California at the age of 85.