As well known for its giant ball of string and florid paintings of nude women as for its crab cakes and strawberry pies, Haussner’s Restaurant served its last meal on October 6, 1999.
Like other bygone eateries such as Martick’s and Marconi’s, the massive East Baltimore restaurant was a throwback to another era. H.L. Mencken was a patron. Mad Men reproduced its interior for an episode.
Now the restaurant building’s days are numbered.
A local developer, Peter Garver, has purchased the property at 3244 Eastern Avenue and plans to tear it down to make way for apartments and street-level shops or studios for artists and artisans.
Garver has met with community residents to share his plans for the prominent Highlandtown site.
They call for a five- or six-story building containing 60-65 residences, 60-65 parking spaces and as many as three commercial spaces or studios.
The developer promises apartments with sweeping views in all directions and a common space for residents on the top level.
If each apartment cost $150,000 to build, the project would represent an investment of $9-$10 million. Mid-2017 is Garver’s target completion date.
The building still has vestiges of its former funky glory, including five colored concrete medallions on the building’s east side depicting food, wine and naked ladies.
The neighborhood response to the prospect of redevelopment has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Chris Ryer, president of the Southeast Community Development Corporation.
In a survey after the first meeting on the issue, 58 people said they liked the project and only two didn’t, Ryer said.
No Landmark Status
The Haussner’s building, consisting of six two-story rowhouses that had been combined plus two more houses used for offices, is in extremely poor condition. It would be hard to recycle, according to Ryer.
The roof leaks and much of value has been removed, ranging from the art work to the restaurant’s four kitchens and equipment.
The building is not protected from demolition by local landmark designation, Eric Holcomb, executive director of the Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), confirmed.
Ryer said Garver’s project has community support because it will bring life to a long vacant corner and will help diversify Highlandtown’s housing stock.
He acknowledged that some people may be sad to see the building go, but most are eager to see something positive happen there, whether the building is preserved or not.
“I think people are sort of like: We’ve got to move on here,” Ryer said, noting that the new building will bring new residents into the community. “In the long run, it’s helping re-position Highlandtown as a mixed-use community.”
Ryer noted that most of the area’s residences are rowhouses, which are good for couples and families.
He said the new project will add apartments for single people and couples who want to live in Southeast Baltimore, but don’t want to share a rowhouse with roommates or pay for higher-priced apartments in Canton.
Most of the apartments will be one bedroom units, with some studios and some two bedrooms, he said.
Ryer said the conversion to apartments of the former Patterson Park High School has demonstrated that there is a strong market for rental apartments near Patterson Park and along Eastern Avenue.
The Uffizi of Highlandtown
The restaurant was started by William Henry Haussner, a native of Germany who got his start in the restaurant business working as a chef in Nuremberg. He came to the U.S. in 1926 and opened a restaurant at 3313 Eastern Avenue that became popular.
Ten years later, Haussner moved his restaurant to the 3200 block of Eastern Avenue. His wife, Frances Wilke Haussner, started collecting paintings and sculptures to decorate the interior of the expanded restaurant.
She bought the first painting, “Venetian Flower Vendor” by Eugen de Blaas, in 1939 to mark the couple’s fourth anniversary.
After that, the Haussners went on buying trips for art, concentrating on figures, still life paintings and other subjects, including dogs and cats. They bought works at auction from the estates of Henry Walters, J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Eventually, the collection of European and American artwork from the 1800s grew to more than 130 paintings and sculptures that could be found throughout the restaurant.
Popular with visitors, Haussner’s came to be known far beyond Baltimore.
“If the proverbial ‘saloon’ in movie Westerns always seemed to have a large painting of a voluptuous nude woman at the bar, then Haussner’s was the Uffizi and Pitti of American restaurants,” wrote the noted art critic Carter Horsley, in a 1999 article for The City Review.
$200,000 Cat Painting
The restaurant was taken over by Haussner’s daughter, Frances Haussner George, and her husband, Stephen Shriver George.
When the Georges decided to retire in the late 1990s, they sold the artwork at Sotheby’s, in an auction that brought $10,127,325.
That so much of the art was sold at such strong prices, Horsley observed, showed that Frances Haussner had a fine collector’s eye. Consider these numbers:
• “After The Bath,” an 1881 painting by Jean-Leon Gerome once owned by William Astor, sold for $1,047,500.
• “The Dog Fancier,” by Briton Rivere, sold for $101,500.
• “Best Friends,” a cat painting by Emile Munier, brought $200,500.
• The ball of string, made from string used to tie up laundered napkins, sold for $8,000 and went to the American Dime Museum, according to local reports.
The Long Goodbye
The Georges donated the Eastern Avenue property to the Baltimore International College, which trained students for hospitality industry careers. But the college experienced financial problems and never reopened it as a training facility.
Prodded by the Southeast CDC, the college sold the property for $500,000 to developer Joseph Schultz, who explored possible uses.
The building was put up for a foreclosure auction in 2013, but the sale was called off at the last minute when a potential buyer emerged. The sale fell through and the building was put up for auction again this year with a sale date of June 30.
Again, the auction was cancelled at the last minute because a mystery buyer had emerged. Garver was the mystery buyer.
Zoning Approval Needed
First District Councilman James Kraft recently sponsored two bills that need approval before the project can proceed.
One changes the zoning for the property to permit up to 65 apartments. The other bill amends the urban renewal plan for the Highlandtown Business Area to permit a building rising up to 75 feet high.
Garver could not be reached for comment.
Tribute to Past
Charles Alexander, Garver’s architect, agreed with Ryer’s assessment of the current building’s condition.
But Alexander said the development team intends to salvage anything from the restaurant’s exterior that can be incorporated into the new structure to help tell future residents and others about the property’s history.
One possibility, he said, is to display the concrete medallions in future public spaces, such as elevator lobbies.
The developer also plans to put out a call for contributions from anyone who has old menus, photos and other Haussner’s memorabilia that might be suitable for display in the new building’s entrance lobby.
“We’re very intent on keeping the history alive,” he said.
As for the name of the new development, Alexander said nothing has been decided but there are many possibilities.
He noted that Haussner’s starts with ‘haus,’ which is German for home or domicile, and that is essentially what Garver is building. Plus, there are numerous H’s all around the property, in leaded glass windows and metal railings.
Whatever approach they take, Alexander promised, “it’s not going to be random.”