Norma Merrick Sklarek shattered racial and gender barriers, earning a place in the male-dominated world of architecture. The first Black woman to become a licensed architect in NY and CA, she produced iconic projects and paved a path for others.Less
Merrick’s parents emigrated from Trinidad during the first significant Caribbean immigration wave to the US in the early 20c. Her father Walter attended Howard U. and eventually became a physician. Norma was born in 1925 in Harlem, NY, where Walter often served as a physician to African American celebrities such as Ethel Waters and Art Tatum. A talented musician and carpenter, he supported his daughter's love of art and math and encouraged her to pursue a career in architecture.
Around 1940, Norma was enrolled at the prestigious Hunter College High School for the intellectually gifted and "Ivy League-bound" young women. Excelling academically, Norma attended Barnard University, the prestigious women's college formerly administered by Columbia University. She attended Barnard initially in order to gain a year of a liberal arts education so that she could be accepted into the then-named Columbia University School of Architecture.
In 1947 she met and married Dumas Flagg Ransom, law student at nearby Wagner University. She subsequently gave birth to her first son, Gregory Merrick Ransom, shortly thereafter. She graduated from Columbia in 1950 with a Bachelor of Architecture (B.Arch.) degree. She was one of only two women, and the only African American in her graduating class. —Norma Merrick Fairweather
Despite her Columbia University pedigree, her race and gender made it predictably difficult to obtain employment. Norma recalled in an oral history interview that she was turned down by 19 prospective employers. It was on the 20th interview, with the Department of Public Works (DPW), that she was hired as a junior draftsperson for New York City. She passed her architecture licensing examination in 1954, becoming the first Black woman believed to be licensed to practice architecture in New York.
In 1955 Norma started working at notable architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM) in New York City, where she was given larger-scale projects. At the same time, she taught architecture courses at New York City Community College (presently called the New York City College of Technology) located in Brooklyn, NY. She was the school's first woman faculty member.
It was also during her tenure at SOM that Norma joined AIA and became the organization's first African American woman member. She was a member of the Council for the Advancement of the Negro in Architecture, a New York-based group. During this groundbreaking work, Norma was a twice-divorced mother of two sons with the birth of her second son, David Merrick Fairweather. Norma depended on the assistance of her family in raising her sons while she worked and advanced her career.
To advance her career, Norma moved to Los Angeles, CA to work with architectural firm Gruen Associates in 1960. She soon became the first Black woman to be a licensed architect in CA. Gruen Associates, founded by visionary Austrian architect Victor Gruen, pioneered work with shopping malls and multi-use buildings. In 1965 she became director of architecture, responsible for hiring and overseeing multiple staff members and project managing several high-profile projects for the firm.
Norma's projects included the high-rise, multi-use building California Mart (1963), now known as California Market Center…
…the skyscraper Fox Plaza (1966) in San Francisco…
…and one of Norma's most notable works for Gruen, The Pacific Design Center (1975), a multi-use facility utilized by California's bustling apparel and fashion industry. Norma's contributary design is affectionately known by locals as the "Blue Whale." Norma worked on the latter project with Gruen's lead architect at the time, Cesar Pelli, known for some of the world's tallest buildings, most notably the World Finance Center (Brookfield Place) in New York City.