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Where Baltimoreans dined amid fine art; Haussner's: An institution where generations found Old World elegance and hometown charm nears its final sitting; HAUSSNER'S RESTAURANT: 1926-1999

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Haussner's Restaurant, a Highlandtown landmark for 73 years, will close at the end of the month and take another piece of the heart of an older, gentler and starchier Baltimore with it.

Baltimore without Haussner's -- where generations of patrons dined from an old-fashioned menu top-heavy with calories, surrounded by walls crammed with paintings, ceramics and sculpture -- seems as unthinkable as Paris without the Louvre, Washington without the Monument, San Francisco without the Golden Gate.

But on Oct. 1, the restaurant at Clinton Street and Eastern Avenue will become the William and Frances Haussner campus of the Baltimore International College, a culinary school.

The founder's daughter, Frances Haussner George, who operates Haussner's with her husband, Steve, said the restaurant remains busy on Friday and Saturday nights and is still profitable. But she says the time has come to close.

"It's the right time," she said. "That's something you can't explain to anybody. It's impossible to sum up 73 years in one sitting or more than one sitting."

Much of the vast collection of gemutlich art that made dining at Haussner's feel like an evening's escape to a Bavarian castle will be sold at auction by Sotheby's in New York in a prestigious single-owner evening sale Nov. 2. Another 550 lots from the collection -- including the famous and curious 4-foot ball of string saved from linen bundles -- will be sold by Timonium auctioneer Richard Opfer on Dec. 16.

Sotheby's senior vice president, Nancy Harrison, an expert on 19th-century European paintings, drawings and sculpture, said the 160 paintings that will be sold in New York will bring more than $8 million.

Frances George, who is known as Francie, decided to donate the fully equipped building to the culinary school as a way to give back to the city that supported her restaurant.

"I want this to be a win-win situation," George said. "It's the most dignified thing I can do for this business and for Highlandtown."

"This is a magnificent and extraordinary gift," said George Piendak, the school's board chairman.

Life without Haussner's

Fighting tears during an interview, George expressed concern for the welfare of her employees, some of whom she hoped would be retained with the culinary school. Haussner's has a staff of 95, down from 107 last month and 210 at its peak. Nearly a quarter of them have worked there 20 years or longer. They display a remarkable loyalty to and fondness for the place.

"We're all going to feel like women without a country," said Milly Aristidou, who started work as a waitress on Feb. 21, 1957. "Life will never be the same without Haussner's."

The name Haussner's has meant a rare blend of elegance and egalitarianism in dining, combining white linens and folksy service by waitresses from the neighborhood who were friendly and efficient and called their regulars "hon."

The Haussner's waitresses -- almost as much a Baltimore icon as the oil paintings -- arrive in crisp white cotton uniforms and push their orders to the tables on wheeled carts draped in snowy napkins.

Over the years, the "stations" where these women served diners have acquired names such as "Apache, because you ran around like Apache Indians," "Dead Man" where a gentleman died one evening, and "Georgia," which was close to the kitchen and the habitual station of Georgia Beck, whose 47 years make her the senior waitress at the restaurant.

Diners celebrate birthdays, marriages, christenings, graduations, anniversaries and sometimes mourn their dead in dining salons where the passage of time has been gentle, the lighting subdued and the nostalgia as thick as the whipped cream that towers on the signature strawberry pie in the pastry case.

William Haussner, who trained as a chef in Europe, started modestly in 1926 with a lunchroom across the street from the present location. That was an era when Hungarian goulash with spaetzle and red cabbage cost 40 cents and a 2-pound charcoal-broiled sirloin steak was $1.25.

Customers were the first- and second-generation ethnic Americans who lived and raised their families in the rowhouses of East Baltimore with their well-scrubbed white marble steps. They came to Haussner's neatly dressed and as well-scrubbed as their homes.

Today, Francie George laments a continuing decline in civility and dress among her customers and said she occasionally upbraids a tubby diner who shows up in a net top and cutoff jeans.

William Haussner, who emigrated from Bavaria, and his wife, Frances Wilkes, who was born in Westphalia, Germany, worked side by side from the day they married in 1935.

"Oh, yes, we were partners all right," Frances Haussner told a reporter on the occasion of receiving an honorary doctorate from the College of Notre Dame. "I worked 18 hours a day."

She continued to run Haussner's after her husband died in June 1963. The Georges took over in 1981. Frances Haussner, in failing health, lives at Church Home.

Francie George said her mother approved the decision to sell the art and transform the restaurant into a culinary classroom.

In the 1930s, Frances Haussner bought the first painting of about 780 in the collection at an Atlantic City auction. It was "The Venetian Flower Vendor, by Eugene de Blaas, a 19th-century Austrian. Since then the collection has spread through the two large dining rooms like the aroma of good cooking. And the paintings tended to be like Haussner's pastries: rich, sweet and creamy.

By the 1940s, Haussner's was luring tourists along with the locals to see the expanding collection of 19th-century Tyrolean villages, plump nudes, jumpy terriers, resting cattle and happy peasants. Buses from a wide swath of the East Coast continue to deposit tourists for dinners from a 112-item menu that still includes sauerbraten, with a Tyrolean dumpling and a vegetable from a selection that routinely has numbered 30, for $11.95; baked rabbit at $17.95 and Smithfield ham $11.95.

At the height of its popularity, Haussner's served 1,600 meals on Saturdays and patrons waited an hour outside in a line stretching around the corner. It still serves 900 diners on Saturdays.

But now the average age of diners keeps increasing, to George's distress. It often includes family groups who bring back their grandparents for a nostalgic anniversary celebration. But a faithful group of regulars returns weekly and sometimes daily.

'Forgotten' masters

Many of the diners at Haussner's may not have realized that the artwork surrounding them has soared in value in recent years. As recently as 20 years ago, the mostly sentimental pre-modern art was often scorned as kitsch, a characterization that was painful to Frances Haussner.

But Harrison of Sotheby's said: "Mr. and Mrs. Haussner's collection is one of the great private collections of 19th-century European paintings in America.

"Their astute eye led them to collect the then 'forgotten' masters of the Academic 19th century, W. A. Bouguereau, J. L. Gerome and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema," Harrison said.

The Haussners shared an eye for quality in the painting genres they preferred and a certain insouciance about the way they were displayed. Striking cameos are strewn on glass shelves like pocket change. Two etchings attributed to Rembrandt and a Whistler are barely visible in another cabinet.

"You're sitting there eating your sour beef and dumplings under a Van Dyck," said Bonnie Bonnell, a painter who has worked as a waitress at Haussner's. "You can reach out and touch it."

That pretty much summed up the unique charm of eating at Haussner's. Although as a matter of fact, the painting may not be a true Van Dyck.

'A fascinating collection'

"It's always been a fascinating collection," said William R. Johnston, associate director and curator of 18th- and 19th-century art at the Walters Art Gallery. "Art historians enjoy going through it looking for unexpected discoveries. It's not just the paintings. It's the sculptures and decorative arts as well."

The collection includes what is said to be one of three existing groups of marble busts of all the Roman emperors, whose cold, blank, stare seemed to forbid untoward high jinks for generations of diners. And a gallery of buxom Victorian nudes decorated the stag bar from which women were barred until the early 1970s and that generations of East Baltimore boys could hardly wait to become old enough to enter.

"The Moorish Bath," a pair of exotic nudes at their toilet painted by Jean-Leon Gerome that hangs in what is now known as the "Gentlemen's Bar," will be the highlight of the Sotheby's sale in November, Harrison said.

Johnston singled out an 1866 painting by Alma-Tadema, "Entrance of the Theatre," as his favorite.

"The Haussners bought at the golden moment -- when the older collections were being dispersed," he said. "The Haussners amassed without specific interests, and what they bought does cover many of the byways of 19th-century art."

But the most remarkable thing about this unique multimillion-dollar art collection must be that no single painting cost the Haussners more than $3,200.

Pub Date: 9/09/99

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