Three Designers Who Helped Light the Way for Women in Architecture
A look at the careers of Helen Liu Fong, Annie Graham Rockfellow, and Norma Merrick Sklarek
Architecture has never been an easy profession to enter. For women who wanted to break into this historically male-dominated field in the early and mid-20th century, sexism made it even harder. But determined, immensely talented people such as Helen Liu Fong, Annie Graham Rockfellow, and Norma Merrick Sklarek—whose careers we’ve chosen to highlight here—persevered.
Of course, this is just a small sampling of the many outstanding women who have made their mark on the built environment. As part of its “Where Women Made History” campaign, the National Trust has crowdsourced a list of more than 1,000 places associated with important women in history—including architects such as Julia Morgan, Mary Colter, and Natalie de Blois.
And if learning about these key figures makes you want to find out more about women in architecture, just wait until early 2022, when Bloomsbury Publishing will release the Bloomsbury Global Encyclopedia of Women in Architecture 1960-2015. The two-volume tome will contain more than 1,000 entries about designers from 135 countries. But for now, check out the following pages for stories on the undersung legacies of three exceptional women: Fong, Rockfellow, and Sklarek.
Helen Liu Fong: 1927–2005
During the 1950s and ’60s, Googie architecture whooshed through Southern California like a T-Bird rounding a corner—and Helen Liu Fong (shown above) was a key part of it. The Los Angeles firm Armét & Davis (now Armét Davis Newlove) served as one of the style’s leading practitioners, designing restaurants with bold signage, dramatic rooflines, and bright colors. As head of interiors for the firm, Fong wielded significant influence over the look and feel of classic L.A. spots like Pann’s, Norms, and Johnie’s Coffee Shop. “She really set the tone of what the interiors were,” says Victor Newlove, now the firm’s principal, who worked under Fong in the ’60s.
The American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, Fong spent most of her life in L.A. She moved north to complete her degree in city planning at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1949. When she returned home, she got a job working as a secretary in the office of architect Eugene Kinn Choy, known for his Modernist houses. But she knew she was meant to be a designer, and after she landed in the office of Armét & Davis as a junior draftsperson in 1951, she found her groove. “I was contributing things … that were my interior architecture signatures, except at the time I didn’t know that,” she told Los Angeles magazine in 2000.
Among these signatures were daring color choices; a flowing floor plan with a variety of seating arrangements; and a focus on important details such as doorknobs, lighting, and silverware. “She was very meticulous,” says Newlove. At Pann’s, built in 1958, she reportedly pulled out a bottle of her own nail polish on a site visit and touched up a few wall tiles whose hue dissatisfied her.
Fong paid close attention to how people moved through a space, using malleable materials such as plastic, cork, and terrazzo to sculpt curving lines that improved efficiency for both customers and employees. She often hired artists to create custom flourishes, such as a cast-resin screen by Hans Werner and Betsy Hancock Werner that depicted the Poulos family, the owners of Pann’s. (The same family still owns the restaurant, and the screen is still there, courtesy of a 1993 building restoration that won an award from the L.A. Conservancy.) “She was such a gifted designer in her ability to work with color and form and shape,” says Katie Horak, an architectural historian and a principal of Architectural Resources Group in L.A.
Googie design was all about car culture, and Fong’s work played an essential role in developing the relationship between drivers and restaurants. The low heights and cozy scale of the furniture and built-ins helped set a scene that beckoned hungry visitors inside; potential customers driving by would see the brightly lit, bustling space through big glass windows and decide to stop.
“She definitely brought her own character and quality to Googie architecture,” says critic Alan Hess, author of the influential 1986 book Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture. “Helen was one of the people who helped to shape the whole aesthetic of Googie, especially with relation to interiors.”
Along with her design talents, Fong’s considerable business sense and practical nature helped keep Armét & Davis going strong. “If you wanted to get something done, you’d call her,” recalls Newlove. Even after she officially retired in the late 1970s, she still did consulting work for the firm over the next couple of decades.
The joy she took in her work comes through in the sheer exuberance of the spaces she designed. As she said in the Los Angeles magazine story: “Being a commercial architect was the most fun job in the world, if you were lucky enough to have been one during the ’50s and ’60s.”
Annie Graham Rockfellow: 1866–1954
As the daughter of well-to-do parents who liked to travel, Annie Graham Rockfellow (right) had ample opportunity to observe and learn—and she took full advantage of it. In 1876, at the age of 10, she visited the World’s Fair in Philadelphia, gaining a fascination with engineering and design that would continue for the rest of her life. “Not a thing escaped me from the making of pins to the big Corliss engine, at the time the largest engine in the world,” she wrote more than five decades later.
Her interest in how things work extended to buildings, and in 1889 she received a degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Never one to shy away from adventure, Rockfellow worked as a draftsperson in Rochester, New York; spent two years teaching in Tucson, Arizona; and went on a four-month bicycling trip around Europe. (Family members believe that the woman she traveled with was her longtime life partner, whose name is unknown.) After about a decade of practice as an architect in Detroit; Buffalo; and Mount Morris, New York, Rockfellow temporarily returned to Arizona to care for her ailing father, who died in 1911.
Sometime during her visits to her father and brother in Arizona, the landscape and architecture of the Southwest took hold of her imagination. “The cactus gets under your skin,” she’d explain. She made a habit of photographing traditional Pueblo architecture and took a 1915 trip to San Diego for the Panama–California Exposition, where the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture of Balboa Park entranced her.
Soon Rockfellow had moved back to Tucson full-time to work with local architect Henry O. Jastaad, bringing all her knowledge and design skills to his established firm. Her name isn’t on the drawings, but “anyone with a clear set of eyes can see the change from before and after she arrived at Jastaad’s firm in 1916,” says R. Brooks Jeffery, professor of architecture at the University of Arizona. “It is very clear that she was the designer.”
Rockfellow—known to friends as “Rocky”—became the first woman to be registered as an architect in Arizona. She embarked on ambitious projects, such as schools and hotels, throughout the state and in New Mexico. In public forums and through her own work, she eloquently advocated for the use of traditional architectural styles and materials in the region. “She had very strong opinions about what was appropriate for architecture in the Southwest,” says her great-grandniece Lisa Waite Bunker.
A pair of buildings Rockfellow designed for the Desert Sanatorium—built around 1926 and now part of the Tucson Medical Center—feature Pueblo Revival elements such as adobe walls, vigas (wooden structural beams), and open-air courtyards to harness precious breezes. At the YWCA of Tucson (circa 1929), now known as the Historic Y, elegant arches, spiraling columns, and cast-concrete ornamental details transform a potentially utilitarian building into a graceful example of the Spanish Colonial Revival style.
And in her masterpiece, Tucson’s legendary El Conquistador Hotel, she deftly wove a Mission Revival–style tower, curved gables, and porches into a grandly landscaped desert oasis. Completed in 1928, the El Conquistador struggled financially and never recovered from the Great Depression. It was demolished in 1968, 14 years after Rockfellow’s death.
But other projects of hers, like the Desert Sanatorium buildings and the Safford School, a much-loved Spanish Colonial Revival building in downtown Tucson, survive. So does the well-preserved YWCA, which seems an appropriate tribute to an athletic, endlessly curious woman who rode horses and climbed mountains.
The Historic Y now houses two local theaters, office space, and a handful of dance and art studios. “There’s a whole other generation of people who use that building,” Jeffery says. “It’s become a hip place to be.”
Norma Merrick Sklarek: 1926–2012
Roland A. Wiley vividly recalls the first time he met Norma Merrick Sklarek (above), when he was a young Black architect on a job interview at Gruen Associates in Los Angeles in 1979. “In a New York accent, she said, ‘I’m Norma Sklarek and I’m here to interview you.’ I thought, ‘Wow! A Black woman!’”
Wiley quickly realized he was in the presence of an architectural powerhouse. Sklarek left a trail of excellence wherever she went, starting with her girlhood days in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where her doctor father had encouraged her to study architecture. She graduated from Columbia University’s architecture program in 1950, as the only Black person and one of two women in the class. In 1954 she became one of the first Black women in the nation to be licensed as an architect. After five years at the blue-chip firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, she headed West, accepting an offer from Gruen Associates in 1960.
Over the next 20 years, Sklarek managed massive projects such as San Bernardino City Hall (1972); the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, California (1975); and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo (1976). She often teamed with the firm’s star architect, César Pelli, who is credited as the designer of these buildings. As Gruen’s director of architecture, Sklarek oversaw the execution of each project: selecting materials, hiring architectural staff, securing permits, and guiding construction schedules. “Norma could put [a building] together and make it stand up,” says architect Kate Diamond, who later would become Sklarek’s business partner.
Patricia A. Morton, a University of California, Riverside, professor who has researched Sklarek, says her unusual blend of intellect and interpersonal skills helped her to shine in this role. “She had this warmth and connected with people,” Morton says. “You [also] have to be quite firm if not downright tough to deal with contractors and get the schedule down. She was able to do that and gain tremendous respect from the people who worked for her.”
Sklarek left Gruen in 1980 to become a vice president at Welton Becket & Associates, another prominent L.A. firm, where she managed the construction of Terminal One, a $50 million project at Los Angeles International Airport. Her next move—a splashy one—was to join Diamond and another architect, Margot Siegel, and eventually form one of the largest women-owned firms in the country. After four years with Siegel Sklarek Diamond, she moved to yet another big name—The Jerde Partnership—for the last few years of her career.
Wherever she worked, Sklarek always acted as a mentor to young architects. Wiley, who did get that job at Gruen and later started his own firm, calls her his godmother. “If not for Norma, I would still be sitting at that drafting table,” he says. “You could learn so much from just observing her. But she was also a nurturing mentor.”
She taught in architecture schools throughout her career, as well giving prep classes for the architectural licensing exam. Among the many honors she received were the American Institute of Architects’ Whitney M. Young Jr. Award for social responsibility and a scholarship in her name at Howard University. Columbia announced the creation of its own Norma Merrick Sklarek scholarship fund in October of 2020.
The complexity and richness of her life outside work—she was married multiple times, raised two children, avidly golfed and played bridge, and threw legendary garden parties at her home in Pacific Palisades, California—also inspired many younger designers. Roberta Washington, a Harlem-based architect, remembers being starstruck by Sklarek at NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects) conferences in the 1990s. “I think I felt enabled to somehow find my own way in NOMA because she was there,” she says. “She was an example to other women that it was possible to be yourself and accomplish what she did.”
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