Norma Merrick Sklarek, 1926-2012
America’s first licensed black female architect, she designed airports and embassies.
Every time you catch a flight or meet a flight at Los Angeles International Airport, you are standing on a piece of Black history, courtesy of one Norma Merrick Sklarek.
When she passed the New York state exam back in 1954, she became the first black woman in America to be licensed as an architect.
Less than a decade later, she was one of the most respected architects in the profession — although you wouldn’t know it sometimes by the way she was treated.
In 1962, she was the first black woman to earn a architect’s license in California. Four years later, she became the first African-American woman elected as a fellow of the American Institute of Architects.
In the architectural world, that’s about as high as you can get.
So it won’t surprise you to learn that she eventually became the first black woman in the United States to form her own architectural firm.
You can read her obituary in the Los Angeles Times here.
As with so many other figures of Black history, what stands out most about Ms. Sklarek is not her genius, but her determination. Being born into Harlem in New York and growing up through the Great Depression may have had something to do with that.
After completing her architectural schooling, she applied for 19 different jobs — and was turned down 19 different times.
For Norma Merrick Sklarek, the 20th time was the charm, but it was not entirely charming.
Starting out in the New York City building department, she was handpicked for such “special” assignments as designing office bathrooms.
When she eventually landed a job at a private architectural firm, her stunned former city co-workers told her of the how she’d been critiqued by her ex-boss, which she recalled in the book “No Mountain High Enough: Secrets of Successful African American Women:”
“He said that I was lazy, that I knew nothing about design and architecture, that I socialized, and that I was late every day. It taught me that it is possible to work next to somebody and not know that they hated you.”
Eventually, she made her way west to Los Angeles, but she still had to deal with being perceived — and treated — differently. She got rides to work with a white colleague who was notorious for being late, but she was the one who got chewed out by the boss for it.
“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,” she told California Architect magazine back in 1985.
“My solution was to buy a car since I, the highly visible employee, had to be punctual.”
“Highly visible employee.” That is, without a doubt, the nicest euphemism for the N-word I’ve ever seen.
She would later be put in charge of designing projects, but would never be introduced as the project leader. She was kept in the background, so as not to upset clients who viewed architecture as a exclusive bastion of white manhood.
It seems there were limits to the amount of visibility one could grant to a “highly visible employee.”
But there was no hiding her results:
- The California Mart in Los Angeles
- The Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood
- The Fox Plaza building in San Francisco
- San Bernardino City Hall
- Horton Plaza in San Diego
- The Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles
- The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo
In 1980, she headed up the team that designed Terminal 1 at LAX to receive the millions of visitors for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Think of it, a black woman in charge of a $50 million project at one of the most important junctures in the city’s history. And she got it done, beautifully and on time.
How she got it done was no mystery to those who knew her. Roland Wiley, whom Ms. Sklarek hired and who now has his own firm, told the LAT how Ms. Sklarek handled her business:
“You didn’t joke around with Norma. She was the one who got the job done, on time and with excellence, and who then went home at 5:30 to pursue her other interests.”
Terminal 1 remains the largest and busiest of the eight terminals now operating at LAX. Not bad for a sister from Harlem whom New York thought was only good for building bathrooms.
Norma Merrick Sklarek was 85.