By Chérmelle D. Edwards
The year was 1928. It was the year that the world saw the first fully air-conditioned office building open, Amelia Earhart make her first Atlantic Ocean flight and the last recording of Ma Rainey, “Mother of Blues.”
That same year in Harlem, where wealthy residents of color were becoming land owners, Dr. Walter Ernest Merrick and Amy Merrick’s child, Norma Merrick Sklarek, was born. Their daughter would later make history as the first female Black architect. Little did they know how impactful the 1928 earmarking of 640 acres of land by the Los Angeles City Council for a new airport would be to Sklarek, until 58 years later when her completed design on the historic Terminal One for the landmark Los Angeles International Airport was unveiled.
“Until the end of World War II, I think there was strong discrimination against women in architecture. The schools had a quota, it was obvious, a quota against women and a quota against blacks. In architecture, I had absolutely no role model. I’m happy today to be a role model for others that follow,” Sklarek said.
Known as the “Rosa Parks of Architecture,” Norma Merrick Sklarek was born to a father from St. Vincent and a mother from Barbados. Raised as an African-American woman with West Indian heritage, her father is credited with urging the young Merrick to interest herself in nontraditional leisure activities like fishing and assisting him with housework.
With island culture as her roots and Harlem as her childhood, she developed an affinity for the arts, specifically science and math. Her formal education included attending an all-girls school, Hunter High, followed by a year at Barnard College, then followed by time at Columbia University’s School of Architecture. While her early educational track was impressive, including passing her final license test on her first attempt, she found it difficult to find work until landing employment with the Department of Works for New York City — a private firm.
Five years later, seeking more out of her career, she left New York to pursue her passion and real dream of architecture on another coast, the West, in Los Angeles. She wanted to build great buildings for America “improving the environment of people in their homes, in their places of work and their places of recreation.”
Sklarek’s legacy did just that upon finding a voice at Gruen
Associates, where she excelled at her craft on projects as diverse as the American Embassy in Tokyo; Los Angeles’ fashion center The California Mart, now a revitalized creative habitat called The Reef; the Fox Plaza and the esteemed Terminal One at Los Angeles Airport.
According to the Los Angeles World Airports market statistic reports, more than 4 million passengers arrived and departed from LAX’s Terminal One alone in 2014 benefiting from her functional design, thoughtful passenger flow and environmentally driven designs. With the terminal being the subject of a current $500 billion redesign, the improved plans will build upon Sklarek’s legacy.
Her voice wasn’t only heard in her physical work, it was recognized by institutions that held architecture in high esteem. In 1954, Sklarek became the first Black woman to receive an architecture license in the United States, making an indelible mark on the history of America like the historic buildings that she designed.
Sklarek firsts didn’t cease with her physical projects; they extended to academic achievements as well. In 1980, she was the first Black woman to receive a fellowship by the American Institute of Architects. From 1980-85 she worked as the vice president and project director at Welton Becket Associates. Then, in 1985, her collaboration with two other notable women – Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond – resulted in the establishment of Siegel, Sklarek, Diamond, one of the largest female-owned and architectural firms in the country and once again making history as the first architecture firm with a Black owner. She taught graduate classes at UCLA, her alma mater of Columbia and Arizona State University. In her honor, Howard University awards a scholarship in architecture in her name. Writing a number of works, her voice lives on among notable pieces such as “Women in Architecture” for the Encyclopedia of Architecture and Construction.
By far, one can consider Sklarek’s status as a role model in leadership and business ethics among colleagues and future architects as one of her greatest achievements. Her impact led her to receive the Association of Black Women Entrepreneurs’ Outstanding Role Model Award in 1987 and serve as a chair on the AIA National Ethics Council for several years, paving the way for architects of color in the United States today.
Sklarek married, had three children and lived in Los Angeles until her death on Feb. 6, 2012.