Goody Steinberg, eminent Bay Area architect, dies at 88

There was no slow fadeout for Goodwin “Goody” Steinberg.

Three weeks ago he delivered a lecture on the history of religious architecture. Two weeks ago he received the Birge Clark Lifetime Achievement award from the Santa Clara chapter of the American Institute of Architecture.

And the night before he died, holding his Kindle reader, he eagerly read “The Pillars of the Earth,” a novel about the building of a cathedral in 12th-century England.

Steinberg, a builder and noted Bay Area architect, died at his home in Palo Alto on Dec. 14 due to complications from chemotherapy. He was 88.

A memorial service will be held 12:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 17, at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

“He had a great life,” said his son, Palo Alto architect Robert Steinberg. “It was the life that he and [wife] Gerry designed for themselves. It focused around the community, the Bay Area, nature, the ocean, family and his art and architecture, which was the guiding light.”

That light led him to establish the Steinberg Group in 1953. Over his 50-year career, he designed thousands of buildings, including homes, corporate campuses and houses of worship, most notably Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills and Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

The Steinbergs were founding members of Beth Am, steeping their three children in Jewish life within its Steinberg-designed walls.

“Both our parents instilled in us a strong sense of Judaism and the importance of pursuing responsibility and integrity,” said son Tom Steinberg.

A native of Chicago, Goody Steinberg grew up as the son of an architect, who sought to inspire his then-11-year-old offspring to go into the family business by “commissioning” him to design a cemetery.

He didn’t need much convincing. Steinberg set out on a career in the field, studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology with Bauhaus legend Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and later in Paris with Jean Labatut.

During a World War II stint in the army, Steinberg first came to California. Struck by the Bay Area’s natural beauty, he ended up settling here in 1951, determined to build an architecture practice.

He didn’t come alone. At his side was his wife, Gerry, whom he’d known since his grammar school days.

“Goody’s sister was my best friend,” recalled Gerry Steinberg, “and our families knew each other. I just liked him from the very beginning, but he always thought I was a nuisance. When he came back from the [military], he saw I had grown up.”

The two were married for 66 years.

The couple settled in Los Altos Hills, then a sleepy rural town in the South Bay. He met a building contractor who allowed the newly minted architect to set up a desk in the back of the office.

Recalls Gerry, “He said, ‘Young man, if I have somebody that needs an architect I’ll recommend you.’ That’s how he started.”

Steinberg didn’t wait around. Recalls his son, Robert, “Goody didn’t have any clients, so he built a nice house in Los Altos Hills to show off his capabilities. He thought someone would buy it, and that would launch his career. But he ran out of money to pave the driveway, couldn’t sell it and eventually moved into [it]. People said he must be successful to live in such a beautiful house, and that launched his career.”

With three growing children, the Steinbergs worked with a group of local Jews to create a Jewish religious school nearby. They acquired a 10-acre hilltop property in Los Altos Hills, and Steinberg designed the synagogue that became Congregation Beth Am.

Initially, Steinberg pushed hard for the congregation to invest in a long-term plan. Instead of just a religious school, he envisioned a campus. He later admitted he tried the congregation’s patience when he insisted on constructing the humble education buildings years before he took up construction of the campus’ focal point, the main building and sanctuary.

His design emulated a desert tent with 12 supporting beams representing the 12 Tribes of Israel, and glass walls to accentuate the site’s natural beauty. “This is a facility that gave the Jewish community an anchor,” Steinberg told j. in 2002. “That’s very important to me.”

Of the landmark synagogue, Robert  Steinberg said his father “used his talents to fight against the obvious and the conventional. That was one of his finest buildings.”

Other signal achievements include the restoration of the Santa Clara County Courthouse in San Jose, San Jose’s Tech Museum of Innovation, Monterey’s Del Monte Hotel and his proudest volunteer accomplishment: serving as adviser to the creation of the Guadalupe River Park in the heart of San Jose.

He also served on the faculty of Stanford University’s architecture department.

But he was perhaps most proud of his family, which today numbers three children, 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Impacted by the Jewish education they received, daughter Rachel Bracha (born Joan) and son Tom both moved to Israel in 1988. “Our passion for Judaism and the decision to lead a more observant lifestyle was an extension of the principles he so forcefully passed on to us,” said Tom Steinberg.

Son Robert went into the family architecture business, eventually taking the helm of the Steinberg Group, now known as Steinberg Architects, the firm that designed Palo Alto’s Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life.

“We were very close,” he said. “He was not just my father, he was my mentor and business partner for some 20 years.”

In a 2002 memoir, “From the Ground Up: Building Silicon Valley,” Steinberg chronicled his professional and personal life.

Though he stepped back from day-to-day management of his firm in 1994, Steinberg kept up with the business and with the field of architecture.

He also explored computer-generated art, blending color, design and music in new ways. Only last week, the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center opened a two-month-long exhibition of his art, now on display at the Koch Gallery.

Last spring Steinberg learned he had lung cancer. It slowed him down only a little, as he kept up his busy schedule, including a trip to Israel last summer to attend the wedding of his grandson.

Said Gerry Steinberg: “He always said to me ‘If I can’t contribute something to society, I don’t want to live, but as long as I’m productive, I love life.’ ”

Goodwin “Goody” Steinberg is survived by wife Geraldine Steinberg; sons Robert Steinberg of Palo Alto and Thomas Steinberg of New York and Jerusalem; and daughter Rachel Bracha Lawrence, of Tsfat, Israel; 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Donations may be made to the Meor Foundation (wwww.meor.org) or the New Seed Foundation (www.newseed.org).

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.