The Rosa Parks of Architecture: Norma Merrick Sklarek

The voice for women facing discrimination in the architectural world, Norma Merrick Sklarek earned the nickname ‘The Rosa Parks of Architecture’ from Anna Lewis, all for her major accomplishments in a white and male dominated field. This is Harlem. It’s 1926 when Norma was born on April 15th to Dr Walter Merrick and Amelia Willoughby, a seamstress. The couple had met in Harlem but they were from Saint Vincent and Barbados, respectively. Norma was close to her father, Walter teaching his daughter all about architecture, a world that fascinated her. They shared a very special bond but it went beyond that. Walter taught Norma how to be hands-on in life, to pursue life’s ambitions on the front foot. Norma was determined. Courageous, even. This was the late 1920s but Norma knew then what she wanted to do in her life. She was an artist and, despite her gender and race, which at the time were prohibitive for her, she was committed to realising her dreams…

The Artist of War

Norma excelled. She excelled in science and fine arts, as well as mathematics. But her father was never hard on her, far from it. He understood that she needed time away from her studies as this was just as important in life. He regularly took her into the countryside for days together in nature and Norma loved it. She loved every second of life with her father, his thirst for adventure becoming her thirst for life. They fished together often, but Walter also made sure to include Norma in everything. From painting their new home in Brooklyn to teaching Norma carpentry skills, she was a learned girl, even in these, her formative days.

She went to university at Barnard and then Columbia where she studied architecture. And soon, she received her bachelors in that very field. But none of this was easy for her. Most of her students were white and found friendships and opportunities easy to come by. Norma had to look after herself. No wonder she craved time with her father. But he taught her to face any adversity in life head on. And that’s just what she did. When she graduated, she was the only black person in the university to attain her bachelor’s degree in architecture and one of only two women. Remarkable considering she finished many assignments on the subway. Most of her classmates were veterans of war and they stuck together.

Norma worked hard in life. And she never stopped working hard.

The competition was keen. But I had a stick-to-it attitude and never gave up.

– Norma.

A Struggle

For simply being black, Norma had faced many obstacles in her life but she always found a way. After she graduated, she started applying to architecture firms all in a time when most architects were white and male. In big cities like New York, all of them were. She received her first rejection in 1950. And then another. And another. But she never gave up applying for work, often in person. In fact, she was rejected from 19 architecture firms, when, in 1950, she was hired as a junior draftsperson in the Department of Public Works in New York. She went to prove just how far stubborn determination can get you in life…

This wasn’t a factor of her age; in most of the rejection letters Norma received she was told, rather bluntly, that it was because she was black or a woman, sometimes both. She didn’t get very far because of discrimination. “They weren’t hiring women or African Americans and I didn’t know which it was [working against me],” she said in 2004.

This wasn’t quite what she hoped for. She wanted to work for an architectural firm but had to make do with the public works. But she was growing restless. Four years of tedious boredom does that to a person. So she decided to take the architecture examination, desperate for a challenge and a change. After all, she was far more qualified than most of her co-workers. And so, in 1954, she made history. She became the first black woman in New York to become a licenced architect.

And once more, she started applying for jobs…

Skidmore, Owings and Merrill

In 1955, Norma applied to Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and if you haven’t heard of them, you are looking at one of the biggest and most successful architecture firms on the entire planet. Norma aimed high. And it paid off. They hired her there and then, even despite a bad reference from her supervisor.

It had to be personal. He was not a licenced architect and I was a young kid – I looked like a teenager – and I was black and a licenced architect.

– Norma (of her supervisor).

She was a busy bee, too. She was, by this point, teaching evening architecture courses at the New York City Community College, all to support her two young children. She was a single mother by 1955. She had new responsibilities. Married and divorced twice, yet she remained close to her mother and her father. But her life was not so rosy. At SOM, elation soon turned to despair as she was given menial tasks such as designing bathroom layouts. Screw it, she thought. I deserve better than this. And she did.

After five miserable years at SOM, she relocated to Los Angeles and took a job at Gruen Associates. Norma tolerated extra scrutiny from her supervisor. She was the only black woman in the firm. She also didn’t own a car and took rides to work with a white, male colleague, who was regularly late.

It took only one week before the boss came and spoke to me about being late. Yet he had not noticed that the young man had been late for two years. My solution was to buy a car since I, the highly visible employee, had to be punctual.

Gruen, however, would prove a turning point for Norma. Now her career would really take off and in more ways than one…

Number One in Cali

It was in 1962 when Norma became the first black female architect to be licenced in California and only four years later, she accepted the position of the first female vice president for Gruen. That’s how far she rose in just four years. Norma wanted the best out of life but she wasn’t being big-headed about things. She could handle it because she was good enough and she knew it.

Soon, Norma started collaborating on major public projects, many simultaneously. She designed California Mart, the Pacific Design Centre, Fox Hills Mall, San Bernardino City Hall, Leo Baeck Temple and the Embassy of the United States in Tokyo. This was the 1960s. Norma was a trailblazer. Whilst her projects will never be to everyone’s liking, striking slices of modernism best defining her work, for the time, they were revolutionary. This was the era of modernism, a notable and astonishing shift in the architectural language of our cities. And Norma was at the heart of the revolution.

Norma never received much credit for her work, often none at all. She was credited as ‘project manager’ but make no bones about it, she was the head designer. Female architects in this era rarely received any credit at all. When a client came through the door, they were always introduced to a male architect and told that he would be designing their project, even if it was Norma. This was true of all female architects at the time. Their firms knew that most people would walk away if they knew a woman was designing their project. And the client would never know. Hence why Norma’s name was never attached to any of her works and even to this day, most have simply never heard of her…

In fact, all of these projects… from San Bernardino City Hall to the Fox Hills Mall, were actually credited to César Pelli. Nope. Not him at all. Did Norma care? Probably, but she always kept her focus on her work. That was what was most important to her, creating rather than acknowledgment. Her son, David, said that she considered designing a building ‘the easy part’. But:

She would make it real. What kind of concrete. What kind of nuts and bolts. What kind of glass. She was in production and she would tell you production was the real work.

The Revolutionary

It was, in the 1960s, almost unheard of to have a black female architect working on large-scale projects, hence why she was never introduced to the clients. Yet she was brilliant. Her work is astonishing. Her formidable technical skills and rigorous work ethic made her the best architect Gruen had. Her philosophy never changed. Architecture is about improving the environment of people, functional and pleasant, never a representation of the ego of the architect.

As far as I know, I am the first and only black woman architect licenced in California. I am not proud to be a unique statistic, but embarrassed by our system which has caused my dubious distinction.

– Norma (1975).

By 1975, Norma was one of the leading architects in America. She was a faculty member of the UCLA and used her position to teach and mentor black and ethnic people in the field of architecture. Yet Norma was ambitious, as ever. In 1980, she departed Gruen shortly after she became the first black woman elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects after becoming its first black female member in 1959. She had given more than 20 years of her life to Gruen. But she wasn’t out, yet.

In 1980, she joined Welton Becket Associates. And it was here she designed her most famous piece: LAX Terminal One. $50 million it would cost and Norma would serve as the head designer and project director. 45 million people pass through this airport each year and how many know that Terminal One was designed by a true trailblazer of American architecture? It is a historical landmark for a reason. What Norma had battled through in her life defined her steely determination. It was not simply an airport. It represented a lifetime of hard work from the streets of Harlem to glitzy LA.

Norma was Welton Becket’s first female employee. And it wasn’t easy. “At first, the [other] architects working on the airport were sceptical because a female was in charge… but a number of projects were going on there at the time and mine was the only on schedule.”

Now THAT is a mic drop…

The Firm

Norma only stayed with Welton Becket for five years before she decided to take the plunge: she wanted her own firm. And in 1985, that’s just what she did. She co-founded Siegel, Sklarek and Diamond with Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond. This was an all-female architectural supergroup. Those are some the biggest names in the world of female architects and now they were together. At the time, it was America’s largest female-owned firm. And they immediately started applying for projects.

For their first five, they won all five commissions, completely unheard of. Architectural firms applying for five at once would be lucky to get ONE today, in 2021. SSD designed the Tarzana Promenade and additions to schools and other institutional buildings. They were making all the papers. They were female and proud of it. Katherine often told reporters that she was committed to shaking up ‘the old boy’s network’ of architects and they sure as hell managed that…

Together, SSD made a remarkable splash in architectural history, shattering the obstacles for female architects making it easier for other women to follow in their footsteps. Their talent was insane. They were so good at what they did all whilst maintaining a ridiculously high standard of professionalism. In a lifetime of firsts, Norma had become the first black woman in America to establish and manage an architectural firm.

Yet, in 1989, she left it all behind.

But why?

The Eternal Teacher

Norma never outgrew her ambition. She moved on to mentor young women who aspired to become architects and became the head designer of the Mall of America. She retired in 1992 at the age of 66 and was appointed by the governor of California to serve on the California Architects Board. She also served as chair of the AIA National Ethics Council for many years. Discrimination was still rife for female architects, especially black women. She remained determined to pave a way for women to accomplish what she had… and more.

Norma’s 1990s was defined by public and professional service, lecturing extensively. She was an excellent coach and inspired many women to take up the pencil. In 2003, she was appointed to the California Architects Board serving on the Professional Qualifications Committee and the Regulatory Enforcement Committee. In fact, she served on just about every committee California had. She was awarded the Whitney Young award in 2008 as an architect exemplifying the profession’s responsibility toward current social issues.

One of the greatest and most important architects the world ever knew left this world not that long ago. Until her death, she remained largely unrecognised for her achievements and even today, Norma’s name is not that known. But she was proud of her life and her work and that was all that mattered to her.

Norma died of heart failure at her home in California on February 6th, 2012, at the age of 85. But just because she isn’t a household name does not mean that architects of this world are not fighting to change that…

The Legacy

Anthologies and academic discussions since Norma’s death have been held and published to attempt to bring Norma and her work to wider public attention. Norma was a pioneer and her legacy must never be forgotten, all under the most hostile of circumstances. Curator of architecture and design at the Smithsonian, Michelle Wilkinson, said:

As a curator and the first user of Norma’s archive, I find much value in how Norma managed to play her role and model a life that included five marriages, two children, an active gardening practice, designing and making many of her own clothes and those of her children, regular committee work… teaching, and (many) hobbies.

Oh, she went on to have five marriages, by the way. Norma’s legacy was never to be her buildings and her buildings alone. She had a vision which she brought to life through education. In a lifetime of firsts, how Norma wanted to be remembered was as an example for others to be the role model she never had: architecturally speaking, female led. Two female architects came before Norma in America, but that was it and Norma never knew of them because, like her, their names were lost to history as well. But at least with Norma we have a chance to re-evaluate the impact she made and recognise the difference she made.

Author Anna Lewis dubbed Norma ‘The Rosa Parks of Architecture’ for all her accomplishments in a male and white dominated field, but Norma accomplished more than I think most people would ever be aware of. She faced discrimination yet soldiered on. In doing so, she became the pioneer that enabled so many more to follow in her footsteps.

AIA President, Marshall Purnell, also a black person, said of Norma:

She was excellent at putting the whole package together… when she started out in the 1950s it was unheard of to have African American female who was registered as an architect. You didn’t trot that person out in front of your clients… she was capable of doing anything. She was the complete architect. She made me possible. She is mentally the strongest person in this profession that I know. Everywhere she went, she was first.

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Images (click to enlarge): 1) Norma Merrick Sklarek, 2) San Bernardino City Hall designed by Norma, 3) The Embassy of the United States in Tokyo designed by Norma, 4) The Pacific Design Centre designed by Norma and Cesar, with Norma the head and principal designer.

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My Other Blogs: The Indelible Life of ME | To Contrive & Jive

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