Havre de Grace opens new theater in historic space

The old and the new and the who's who of Harford County gathered Saturday in Havre de Grace to celebrate the opening of the waterfront city's modernized 19th-century center of civic and cultural life.

The Havre de Grace Opera House, built in 1870, has reopened after a three-year, $4 million transformation that has given it a new identity: The Cultural Center at the Opera House. The building, which seats slightly more than 200 people, is expected to entertain 20,000 spectators each year with plays, concerts and art shows.

“It’s a 19th-century building that is now 21st-century state-of-the-art,” said Rebecca Jessop, executive director of the Havre de Grace Arts Collective.

Former and current elected officials gathered for the black-tie reopening Saturday afternoon that featured a Steely Dan cover band and a procession of dignitaries thanking Havre de Grace voters, private donors and government agencies for completing a renovation that began eight years ago.

“It’s the only publicly available venue in Harford County,” said William Price, board chairman of the Havre de Grace Opera House Foundation.

In 2016 voters approved a referendum authorizing the city to issue $2.1 million in bonds to finalize financing for the $4 million renovation. The foundation raised $1.8 million, and city, county and state funds supported the remaining costs.

“The referendum was the voters saying we believe in the future of this city,” said Mayor William T. Martin. Everyone, he added, “agreed the building was worth saving.”

The idea began in 2009 when then-City Councilman Randy Craig, son of former Harford County Executive David Craig, formed a special committee to “review future uses of the opera house,” according to foundation materials.

The past uses of the building combined politics, education and culture under one roof, with the first floor serving as a school, library and city hall, while the upper floors provided theater space for performances. The third floor was lost to a fire in the 1920s.

The elder Craig, whom Gov. Larry Hogan appointed last year to serve as executive director of the Maryland World War I Centennial Commission, recounted the building’s history. Three presidents stopped near the theater, which was built on Union Avenue, once the equivalent of an interstate: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and John F. Kennedy.

“I was 11" when Kennedy, while campaigning for president, stopped in Havre de Grace, David Craig said. He said he managed to position himself to shake Kennedy’s hand twice during the visit.

“It was a true civic center of Havre de Grace,” he said.

Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, a Harford County Democrat, said she hopes the 147-year-old building provides “100 years of new memories.”

The opera house kicks off its performances with daily shows running from Sunday to Aug. 13. For more information, go to www.HdgOperaHouse.org.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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