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Norma Merrick Sklarek, First Black Female Licensed Architect, Dies At 85


First Posted: 02/10/2012 3:40 pm Updated: 03/ 1/2012 4:29 pm

Norma Merrick Sklarek, the first African-American woman in the country to become a licensed architect, died Monday, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Sklarek, who was born in Harlem, New York to Trinidadian parents and earned her Bachelor of Architecture from Barnard College at Columbia University, was a pioneer in the architecture world, helping produce landmarks such as Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport and the American Embassy in Tokyo.

After becoming the first African-American woman to pass the New York state exam in 1954, Sklarek went on to break many other barriers throughout her career, becoming the first black woman to earn a license in California, in 1962, and being elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, the highest designation bestowed by the professional group, in 1966, according to the Times.

Sklarek's rise to the top at prominent design firms, including Gruen and Associates in Los Angeles, Welton Becket Associates in Santa Monica and the Jerde Partnership in Venice, wasn't easy. According to the Los Angeles Times:

After graduating, she applied for jobs but was turned down 19 times. "They weren't hiring women or African Americans, and I didn't know which it was [working against me,]" she told the Palisadian-Post in 2004.

She finally found a position with the city's engineering department. On her first try, she passed the four-day state licensing exam and, in 1955, was hired at Skidmore, Owings, Merrill, a leading architectural and engineering firm.

In a 1985 interview with California Architect magazine, Sklarek described herself as "the highly visible employee," when detailing discrimination she experienced at a firm dominated by white men. When it came to design projects, however, Sklarek was forced into the background. But her contribution to high-profile projects remained significant.

As Gruen's director, Sklarek was responsible for hiring and overseeing the staff as well coordinating the technical aspects of major projects, including the California Mart, Pacific Design Center, Fox Hills Mall, San Bernardino City Hall, Leo Baeck Temple and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

In her honor, Howard University offers the Norma Merrick Sklarek Architectural Scholarship Award. Norma Merrick Sklarek is an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, according to the blog Harlem World.

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A 1986 staff file photo of architects, from left, Margot Siegel, Norma Sklarek and Katherine Diamond, looking over blueprints. Sklarek, the first black woman in the United States to become a licensed architect, died on Feb. 6, 2012, at 85.
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Filed by Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson  |  Report Corrections