Architect David Robinson dies, guided Emanu-El restoration

David Robinson was already one of San Francisco’s most respected architects when he won the commission to restore and retrofit Congregation Emanu-El in 1988. He was thrilled — but also a bit shocked.

“It was interesting that our firm even got the job. There are no Jewish principals in the firm. And there were plenty of firms around where the principal architects were probably even part of the congregation,” recalled Jeff Teel, Robinson’s first hire when he founded Robinson, Mills & Williams in San Francisco.

Of the hundreds of commissions Robinson poured his heart into — and colleagues remembered him as exceedingly driven and hardworking — the powerful Emanu-El dome stood out as one of his favorites.

Robinson died at his Sausalito home Feb. 2 after a protracted battle with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 72.

And even though he was Episcopalian, his memorial service was held Feb. 6 beneath the restored dome, at his request.

“It was clear to me that this was not for him a job, a contract. This was a mission,” recalled Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan, who was a newly hired junior rabbi during Robinson’s restoration work.

“He was really cognizant that he was touching history. And he was doing more than sprucing it up. They were actually elevating it. Some architectural elements from the ’20s had not been incorporated for some reason. He completed them and actually exceeded them because of technology.”

Robinson was born Chalfant David Robinson — a name he never used — in New York City to a family that one longtime friend described as “aristocratic”; he captained the ice hockey and crew teams at Princeton.

The young architect was able to pursue excellence over revenue.

“David was remarkably focused on what he called ‘good design.’ He wanted good design or nothing,” recalled longtime friend and business partner Matthew Mills.

“He wasn’t in business to become financially successful. He already was. His goal was to do the best possible work he could do. Standards were high.”

Added Wolf-Prusan, “I think about him every time I walk through the main sanctuary.”

Robinson is survived by his wife of 43 years, Mary; daughter Annie Robinson Woods of San Francisco; sons Ward Robinson of Los Angeles and Steven Robinson of New York; three grandchildren, two brothers and three sisters. Donations in his memory can be sent to the C. David Robinson Endowment Fund at the ALS Association Greater Bay Area Chapter, 565 Commercial St., Second Floor, San Francisco CA 94111.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.