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Norma Merrick Sklarek, Breaking Barriers for Black American Women


Born in 1926, Norma Merrick Sklarek was the first Black woman to register as an architect in New York and California, and also the first Black woman to be elected to the prestigious Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA). In addition to many important works, she became a role model for younger African-American woman.


April 15, 1926 in Harlem, New York

Name at Birth:

Norma Merrick

Other Names:

Also known as Norma Merrick Fairweather. "Sklarek" was the name of Norma Merrick's second husband, Rolf Sklarek, who died in 1984. Married Dr. Cornelius Welch in 1985.


February 6, 2012 in Pacific Palisades, California


  • Hunter High School, an all-girls magnate school
  • Barnard College
  • Columbia University School of Architecture, B.Arch. 1950

Work History:

  • 1950-1954: After receiving her degree, was unable to find work at an architecture firm. Took a job at the New York Department of Public Works while working toward becoming a licensed architect in 1954.
  • 1955-1960: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (New York)
  • 1960-1980: Gruen and Associates (Los Angeles, California). Became the firm's first female director in 1966
  • 1980-1985: Vice President at Welton Becket Associates (Santa Monica, CA)
  • 1985: Joined with Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond to establish Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond (Venice, CA)
  • 1989-1992: Principal at the Jerde Partnership (Venice, CA)

Major Project Collaborations:

Sklarek's race and gender often were marketing detriments at the time of her employment with major architectural firms. When a director at Gruen Associates, Sklarek collaborated with César Pelli on a number of projects. Only the U.S. Embassy in Japan has acknowledged Sklarek's contributions ("The building was designed by César Pelli and Norma Merrick Sklarek of Gruen Associates of Los Angeles and constructed by Obayashi Corporation.").
  • City Hall in San Bernardino, California
  • Fox Plaza in San Francisco, CA
  • Terminal One at the Los Angeles International Airport, CA
  • Commons - Courthouse Center in Columbus, Indiana (1973)
  • Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, CA (1975)
  • US Embassy in Tokyo, Japan (1976)
  • Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, CA
  • Mall of America in Minneapolis

More About Norma Merrick Sklarek:

Norma Merrick Sklarek was born to West Indian parents who had moved to Harlem, New York. Sklarek's father, a doctor, encouraged her to excel in school and to seek a career in a field not normally open to females or to African Americans.

Norma Sklarek's life has been filled with many firsts:

  • First African-American woman to be licensed as an architect in New York (1954) and in California (1962)
  • In 1959, the first African-American woman to become a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA)
  • In 1980, the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the AIA
  • In 1985, helped establish and managed the California firm Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond


Because of the disparities she faced in her life and career, Norma Merrick Sklarek could be sympathetic to the struggles of others. She led with her charm, grace, wisdom, and hard work. She never excused racism and sexism but gave others the strength to deal with adversities. Read "In Memoriam" by Roberta Washington for an account of the personal impact Sklarek has had on the lives of many.


"In architecture, I had absolutely no role model. I'm happy today to be a role model for others that follow."


Websites accessed April 9, 2012.

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