Frances Wilke Haussner, matriarch of the venerable Highlandtown restaurant that was as revered for its Teutonic cuisine as for its eclectic art collection, died early yesterday of kidney failure at College Manor in Lutherville. She was 91 and had been in failing health.
Until its closing last year, Haussner's Restaurant, which had been founded by her husband, master chef William Henry Haussner, in 1926 and where calorie counting was never in vogue, kept Baltimoreans happily stuffed with German and Maryland dishes for 73 years.
Mrs. Haussner, an elegant woman with porcelain-blue eyes and snow-white hair, had for years presided over a menu of 112 gastronomical entrees in a restaurant that seated 500. She semi-retired in the 1970s, relinquishing day-to-day operations to daughter Frances Haussner George and her daughter's husband, Steve.
"She wasn't a good lady or an excellent lady. She was a great lady, and very stately," said state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, former governor and Baltimore mayor. "She always made you feel at home, and would come and talk with me and Hilda Mae [Snoops] when we went there to have sour beef. That was our dish."
Mrs. Haussner's life seemed defined by two all-consuming passions: her restaurant at Eastern Avenue and Clinton Street, and collecting art.
And nothing brought her greater joy than to watch her guests dining happily, surrounded by paintings she'd collected of Tyrolean landscapes, dogs and cats, French cathedrals, peasants of the field, buxom nudes and busts of Roman emperors that filled the walls and floors of the restaurant's five sprawling dining rooms.
And come they did, to dine on such favorites as sauerbraten in a pungent gingersnap gravy served with bowls of steaming red cabbage. Other dishes included Wiener schnitzel a la Holstein, ox tongue, hasenpfeffer with spaetzle and diamondback terrapin, which probably made Haussner's one of the last restaurants in Maryland to serve the legendary Tidewater stew. After the feast, accompanied by the finest German wines and steins of imported beer, came that most signature of Haussner desserts, a large slab of strawberry pie.
"Mrs. Haussner was the soul of Haussner's," said John R. Dorsey, former Sun art critic and restaurant reviewer. "She had a strong business sense, and her warm, welcoming, kindly presence, together with the comfortable food, made you happy there. She was an art collector both behind and ahead of fashion, and the art made Haussner's a nationally cited tourist attraction. She is a Baltimore legend."
Haussner's "didn't have a rival in the 1940s, 1950s and into the 1960s, and for years, there was simply no point in going anywhere else. It was one of those rare places," said Carleton Jones, retired Sunday Sun feature writer and restaurant critic. "Mrs. Haussner was a tireless person who was always there. I admired her as I know hundreds of others did."
In a 1976 Sun interview, Mrs. Haussner reflected on her life in the restaurant business. "It takes endurance, courage and friendliness. Things have to be good and fresh, and you must be constantly on the alert. And you can't overcharge; you're entitled to a decent profit, but can't be greedy. The main thing is that customers come back," she said. "Work - that's all it is. Do it right or don't do it at all. You can't fool the public; you only fool yourself. Good food is good health."
Ironically, the woman who presided over Haussner's and its stick-to-the-ribs cuisine was a vegetarian.
She was born Frances Wilke in Bontkirchen, Germany, a small village in Westphalia, on July 12, 1909. Educated by Franciscan nuns at a convent school in Dusseldorf, Mrs. Haussner came to Baltimore in 1924 to escape the economic depression that swept her homeland after World War I.
She worked with a brother who owned Wilke's Store, a grocery at Biddle and Eager streets. He eventually expanded his operation to 12 stores throughout the city.
She met her future husband at a concert where she was singing. After a whirlwind romance of three weeks, the couple married in 1935. Mr. Haussner, who had been a chef to Kaiser Wilhelm II, died in 1963.
Joining her husband in a business where 18-hour days were common, Mrs. Haussner was a hostess and oversaw food preparation. Until they bought a home in Guilford in the 1940s, the couple lived in an apartment above the restaurant.
In the late 1920s and continuing until her husband insisted that she confine her activities to more earthly pursuits, Mrs. Haussner flew and raced Waco monoplanes. Of her flying days, Mrs. Haussner told The Sun: "If I hadn't had more guts than brains, I wouldn't have had the life I had."
The Haussners "were both wonderful, wonderful people. She treated her employees the way she wanted to be treated. She never had any malice and was good to all," said Dorothy E. Brown of Highlandtown, who began working as a waitress at the restaurant in 1940 and retired as cashier several months before the restaurant's closing about a year ago.
Mrs. Haussner's zeal for collecting began in the late 1930s, when 19th-century canvases with heavy gilt frames, bronzes and busts that had fallen into disfavor with their owners, found a rare buyer in her.
"They bought the oversized and shamelessly old-fashioned paintings whose value had collapsed in the late 1930s and 1940s. The art itself had been dismissed, the way a certain dinner of pork chops, buttered peas and creamed onions would be at certain chic restaurants today," said The Sun in 1996.
Mr. Haussner became as enthusiastic a collector as his wife. On their fifth wedding anniversary, they bought their first painting, "Venetian Flower Vender," by Eugene de Blaas, for $1,000.
The couple allocated $15,000 a year for collecting and eventually filled their restaurant, with the last painting going on the walls in 1963. The collection was auctioned last year in New York and Baltimore.
"She purchased items and paintings from the Walters family, Robert Ripley, John Ringling North, Evelyn Walsh McLean and August Belmont," said Mrs. George of Sparks.
"Frances brought art and a culture that many in Baltimore didn't have the opportunity to learn about," said former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who credited Mrs. Haussner with sparking her own interest in collecting. "She loved beautiful things and liked telling people about her collection."
Mrs. Haussner's interests included the Girl Scouts, Boys Clubs and the Salvation Army, to which she gave a 135-acre farm in Monkton. During World War II, she was a captain in the Red Cross. She had been a member of the board of Villa Julie College and the former Church Home and Hospital.
"During the war, they entertained wounded servicemen in the restaurant," Mrs. George said. "She'd go to pawnshops and buy diamond rings for those who were going overseas and wanted to get engaged. Consequently, we had a lot of 50-year anniversary parties in the restaurant."
A memorial service for Mrs. Haussner will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 9 at Zion Lutheran Church, City Hall Plaza, Baltimore.
In addition to her daughter, she is survived by a grandson, Stephen S. George Jr. of Sparks; a granddaughter, Kimberley G. Brune of Homeland; and three great-grandchildren.