Norma Merrick Sklarek

African American architect and educator who designed large-scale projects such as LAX Terminal One, San Bernardino City Hall, and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. First African American woman to become a licensed architect in the United States.

Norma Merrick Sklarek, pictured in the Gruen Associates offices in the 1960s. With her, from left to right: Sam Tolchinsky (mechanical engineering); Henry Walocha (structural engineering); Sid Brisker (project manager); and Rolf Sklarek (head of construction administration; Rolf and Norma married in 1967). Photographer unknown. Courtesy Gruen Associates.
Show Footnotes

Interviewed by Wesley H. Henderson01 The full oral history can be found here


HENDERSON: You had said you were working at SOM [the New York office of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill] and then had taken a vacation here in California. Was it just a normal vacation? I mean, you weren’t out here for any business reasons?

SKLAREK: No, it was just a vacation.

HENDERSON: Any particular reason why you chose California?

SKLAREK: I had some friends out here in California, and California seemed like an exciting place to visit. My mother [Amy Willoughby Merrick] was always full of ideas and suggested to me, “Why don’t you go to California for a week or two?” [laughter] And I guess she recognized the fact that I needed a vacation, which was very nice. She took care of my two kids while I came out on vacation.

HENDERSON: And you came out with your husband?

SKLAREK: No, I was divorced.

HENDERSON: Oh, from [Benjamin] Fairweather?

SKLAREK: Yes, Yes, from Fairweather. [laughter] Again. These marriages just didn’t last. It seems as though they had something to do with the male ego. [laughter] The very sensitive, delicate male ego.

HENDERSON: This is sort of an aside, but do you think that your being an architect was contributing to their problem, or—? Let’s say if you had been a schoolteacher—

SKLAREK: Oh, definitely. Definitely my being an architect and being in a more prestigious and a better-paying job than they were in somehow, even if it wasn’t at that time— Yeah, it was better paid. That had a lot to do with it.

HENDERSON: You would need a very secure guy to be your husband at the time.

SKLAREK: That’s right. So some friends of mine out here said to me—these friends with whom I was staying—”Do you like it out here?” I said, “Yes.” And they said, “Well, why don’t you move?” I said, “I never thought about that, but it sounds like a good idea. I’ll move next year.”

So I got the names of a couple of architectural firms and visited them. One was Welton Becket and Associates, and I got an appointment.

HENDERSON: Now, this is still while you’re on vacation? Or this is the next year?

SKLAREK: Yes, while I was on vacation. The architect, Alan Rosen, said that they had never had a woman architect work there before. This was—

HENDERSON: Becket is a big office.

SKLAREK: It’s a very large office, one of the largest. But, of course, they had no objection if one were qualified, you know. But they had just never had a woman architect working there before. They’d had one or two who’d worked in interiors, but no one in architecture. So, anyway, I went back home and made arrangements to move the next year.

HENDERSON: And you had been hired by Becket? That was firm in your mind?

SKLAREK: No, no.

HENDERSON: Oh, you were moving even without a firm job. You were ready to move.



SKLAREK: Architectural firms generally don’t make commitments for six months or a year in advance because they usually don’t know whether there’s going to be a need to increase the staff at that time, you know, that far ahead. People at SOM were really surprised—because I had being doing so well there—surprised that I would be leaving.  Many of them said to me, “Well, if you must move to California, San Francisco is the place.” But I wasn’t interested in San Francisco because I had friends in Los Angeles. And besides, I think that the weather in Los Angeles and Southern California was more attractive to me, because I had had enough of cold winters and this seemed more tropical down here.

When SOM realized that I was moving, they helped me by giving me letters of introduction to firms out here. And even the editor of Progressive Architecture [Thomas H. Creighton] visited in New York, and he gave me letters of introduction. [laughter]

HENDERSON: Okay. This was in 1960? About then?

SKLAREK: Yes. Nineteen sixty. So I had a great deal of credibility in architecture in New York, one, for having passed the licensing exam at a very tender age and, two, for getting things done efficiently and quickly by really sticking to my work and working conscientiously.

And then there was another trick that I had, which probably helped even in taking the design exam and in an office, which is that my drafting, lettering, and presentation of the work was done with an extremely bold hand, much more so than others. Anyone looking at it could not only read the drawing at a flash, but, psychologically,

I think it worked that anyone that draws like this, you know, is really— [laughter]

HENDERSON: I know what you’re saying. [laughter]

SKLAREK: Yeah. [laughter] It’s so bold that it’s got to be right, you know. You’ve got so much confidence that they wouldn’t dare question it, because it looked like I never intended to ever erase anything, not that that was so. [laughter] But it was done in a manner which seemed to exude confidence.

HENDERSON: Okay. That style had been something you just picked up naturally over time? Or that was the way you were from the beginning? It was a conscious effort to be bold?

SKLAREK: I learned from asking people and watching and observing, really from observing others and copying what I thought was good. In fact, the only firm that I interviewed with, even though I had all these letters of recommendation and letters of introduction to firms out here— The first one that I went to was Victor Gruen and Associates [Architects and Planners]. It was called Victor Gruen at that time. Later the name was changed to Gruen Associates. So I visited Victor Gruen’s office, and I managed to negotiate a salary which was higher than others who had been hired that same month with essentially the same background as I. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that that’s why I had so much static in negotiating the salary, because he had just hired someone with exactly the same qualifications—a male, at that—and I was getting like 30 or 40 percent more.

HENDERSON: Ouch. [laughter] Now, were you negotiating for that salary because of your salary history in New York or what you thought you would need—?

SKLAREK: I was negotiating for that salary because I needed it. [laughter] By that time, I was supporting myself and two children [Gregory Ransom and David Fairweather] and my mother, the sole supporter of all of them.

Oh, just before moving to Los Angeles, I met a young man whom I fell madly in love with again. [laughter] And within a few months, we were married. His name was—”Harry” was his nickname. Francis Pena. He wanted to move to California to go to aeronautical school out here. He was very bright, intelligent, handsome. Even though he was intellectually bright, he never had had the opportunity to go to college before. So he and I drove out to California. Well, he did nearly all of the driving. And I had to find a place to live. I found a house to live in, and then I sent for my mother and the children, who flew out. But my mother didn’t like it out here and moved back very quickly, after just a few months.

HENDERSON: Oh, a question, though, at this point: Now, your father [Walter Merrick] was he still on the scene? When your mother was moving out here, was she leaving your father?

SKLAREK: My parents, at that point, were divorced. They had become divorced after thirty-three years of marriage. But my mother missed her friends, and it was difficult for her because she did not drive.

HENDERSON: Yes. You have to drive in L.A.

SKLAREK: A different lifestyle completely. So she went back after a few months. But I got the job at Victor Gruen’s, and I never used the other letters of recommendation or introduction. I remained at Gruen’s for the next twenty years.

Excerpted from conversations completed under the auspices of the Oral History Program, University of California, Los Angeles, as part of the series “African- American Architects of Los Angeles.”
Courtesy of the Center for Oral History Research, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.