Maybeck was born in New York City, the son of a German immigrant and studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, France. He moved to Berkeley, California in 1892. He became a professor of engineering drawing at University of California, Berkeley and acted as a mentor for an entire generation of other California architects, including Julia Morgan and William Wurster. In 1951 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects.
Maybeck was a stylistic chameleon, equally comfortable producing work in Mission style, Gothic, and Beaux-Arts classicism, believing that each architectural problem required development of an entirely new solution. Many of his buildings still stand in his long-time home city of Berkeley. The 1910 First Church of Christ, Scientist is designated a National Historic Landmark and is considered one of Maybeck's finest works. It is a strange confection of medieval European, Japanese, Nordic, Celtic and shingle style architecture, but the effect is magical. Thankfully, the church has an on-going program of repairs that have kept the building in good shape, which is more than can be said for some of Maybeck's friend Julia Morgan's buildings, some of which have been bowdlerized into oblivion.
Maybeck also designed the domed Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. One of his most interesting office buildings is the home of the Family Service Agency of San Francisco, offices at 1010 Gough Street. This building, constructed in 1928, is on the city's Historic Building Register and still serves as Family Service headquarters. Some of his larger residential projects, most notably a few in the hills of Berkeley, California (see esp. La Loma Park), have been compared to the ultimate bungalows of the architects Greene and Greene.
He also developed a comprehensive town plan for the company town of Brookings, Oregon, the chalet at the Bohemian Grove, and many of the buildings on the campus of Principia College in Elsah, Illinois.
A lifetime fascination with drama and the theatre can be seen in much of Maybeck's work. In his spare time, he was known to create costumes, and also designed sets for the amateur productions at Berkeley's Hillside Club.