Michael F. Wettach, 66, restaurateur, steeplechase rider

May 12, 1999|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Michael F. Wettach, a Maryland steeplechase rider who formerly owned the Admiral's Cup restaurant in Fells Point, died Sunday of heart failure at St. Joseph Medical Center. He was 66 and lived in Monkton.

Mr. Wettach was the grandson of Solomon R. Guggenheim, founder of New York's Guggenheim Museum, and great-nephew of financier Benjamin Guggenheim, who perished on the Titanic. Mr. Wettach had served continuously as a Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation trustee since 1957.

Mr. Wettach came from a family of equestrians. His father, Fred Wettach, established the world's record in a steeplechase jump -- 8 feet, 3 1/2 inches -- in 1927. For many years, Mr. Wettach owned Merryland Farm, then a 300-acre horse-breeding farm in Long Green Valley, with his mother, Barbara Guggenheim Obre. The farm, now 160 acres, is owned by Baltimore County.

In 1962, Mr. Wettach won a steeplechase race at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., aboard his mother's horse, The Burma Road. He also rode in the Maryland Hunt Cup.

When Maryland friends inquired if he'd ever won the Hunt Cup, Mr. Wettach had a ready answer: "No, and I'll bet you haven't won at Saratoga."

As a member of the Guggenheim family, whose fortunes were made from copper mines, he served its charitable foundation for the past 42 years.

Its best-known landmark is the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Other Guggenheim museums are in Bilbao, Spain -- where Mr. Wettach was recently received by the Spanish King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia -- and in Berlin and Venice, Italy

In 1977, Mr. Wettach decided to restore an 18th-century building in Fells Point and open a restaurant.

He bought a Thames Street sub shop and gradually introduced his special dishes to its menu.

"He was smart and tenacious," said W. Snowden Carter, former editor of the Maryland Horse. "At times, he focused on horse breeding. At times, he focused on his restaurant. He was good at everything he wanted to do."

The Admiral's Cup won a wide following of regular customers.

"He made his own chocolate mousse, and it was delicious," said Laura Norris, owner of Bertha's, another Fells Point restaurant. "He insisted on making his potato chips, too."

He sold the restaurant in 1985 but continued to own the property.

"It did not matter if you were a New York socialite or a homeless person in Fells Point, he treated everyone with the same graciousness or the same sarcasm," said his companion, Robert C. Ludwig of Monkton. "He was a very caring, generous man."

Born in New York City, Mr. Wettach attended Avon Old Farms, a Connecticut school, and the Johns Hopkins University.

After serving in the Army from 1952 to 1954, he pursued a career in the New York theater. He was an assistant to Broadway composer Jule Styne and once was a driver for singer Ethel Merman. He was stage manager for several productions, including the 1956 Broadway musical, "Mr. Wonderful," a 1959 musical called "First Impressions," and the play, "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" starring Jayne Mansfield.

"He had a great gift of imitation," said Betty Shea Miller, who managed Merryland Farm for him. "At the drop of a hat, he could put on a show and have everybody in stitches."

Mr. Wettach was a member of the Carolina Plantation Society, the National Steeplechase and Hunt Association and Elkridge-Harford Hunt. He was a member of the consulting committee of Ladew Topiary Gardens.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. May 29 at St. James Episcopal Church, Monkton.

He is survived by a half-brother, Peter O. Lawson-Johnston of Princeton, N.J.; three nieces and a nephew.

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