Trailblazing Architect

by Chris Anderson '71

Award-winning architect Norma Merrick Sklarek modestly and quietly spoke to a spellbound audience in the Humanities Auditorium about her many “firsts.” She was the first Afirican-American woman to become a licensed architect in the United States, the first woman elected Fellow of the American Institute of Architects for outstanding architectural contributions. In 1985, she became the first Afirican-American woman to form her own architectural firm, Siegel-Sklarek-Diamond. It was the largest woman-owned and mostly woman-staffed firm at that time.

Never one for taking the easy route, Sklarek remembers at an early age having no interest in pursuing traditional female roles. She credits her father for helping her select the road less traveled.

She was the only child in a working-class family in Harlem, N.Y., and her partents were insistent that she choose a professional career path. “During the time I was thinking about my career choices, my father said, ‘What about architecture?” Never did she imagine that his counsel would lead her to become a trailblazer in her field.

Succinctly describing the landscape in which she rose to fame, Sklarek commented: “Until the end of World War II, I think there was strong discrimination against women in architecture. It was fairy obvious the schools had a quota against women and against blacks. Even after graduation from Barnard, with a professional architectural degree, it was tough to get a job. I applied at about twenty different offices before I was able to land an entry-level job. I don’t know if the rejections were because I was a black person, because I was a young woman, or because of the economic recession at the time.”

A virtual female pioneer in the male-dominated world of architecture, Sklarek nonetheless carved out an impressive resume of work and established a route for other minority women to follow. Her expertise in building design has been high-rise office buidings, hotels, apartment buildings, and shopping malls. Her projects include the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, the Mall of America, the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, and Terminal One at LAX.

And what advice would she give young women today? “Do not give up on anything you find difficult.