That would square with opera, which often requires plenty of staging. Price owns an old etching of the building that reveals an irregularly shaped bump-out, a feature that would accommodate such a fly house. No direct evidence survives.

The fire "decapitated" the third floor, Price said, which is why the opera house has been a mere two stories for generations now.

Would opera have been performed in Havre de Grace in the late 19th century? Not likely, said Franklin J. Hildy, director of the graduate theater program at the University of Maryland.

Construction of community theaters boomed across America between the Civil War era and World War I, said Hildy, who specializes in the history of theatrical architecture.

The Havre de Grace Opera House is typical of the genre: Such buildings usually had meeting space on the first floor and a theater on the second or third. Most became community anchors, and they generally included "opera house" in their name.

Scores of such buildings survive in the United States, from the Tecumseh Opera House in tiny Tecumseh, Neb., built in 1880 and still in use as part of a two-block commercial district, to the Westminster Opera House in Carroll County, built in 1850, which has housed musicals and scrapbook shows, served as a library and a newspaper office, and been home to a printing company since 1975.

These places rarely, if ever, staged opera. There were few traveling opera companies during that period, Hildy said, and they would generally have stuck to major cities.

"Why then the use of the term 'opera house?'" Hildy asked. "My colleagues and I have been kicking that around for years. I think it's because it just has a certain grandeur. If you were a public official trying to get funding, that had to help."

The theaters, historians say, mostly featured lower-brow events, such as vaudeville shows.

Still, the story persists that the Havre de Grace facility did host opera, at least before the fire. Shank, 86, said he has heard that in the early years, the place had a stage that could be raised and lowered between the second and third floors for scenery changes, either in one or two pieces.

If true, Hildy said, the Havre de Grace Opera House would be one of two places in America with such a system at the time — the other being the renowned Madison Square Theatre in New York, built in 1863.

If that could be proved, he said, "they should restore the entire building" to its original specifications, as it would be an attraction of great historical interest.

Hildy, who is compiling a list of every theater in the world that is more than 100 years old, said he hadn't heard of the Havre de Grace Opera House before this week. But if it was built when period maps suggest, he said, it could be the oldest theater in the state.

"I can't think of an older one," he said. He planned to place the venue on his list at theatre-finder.org.

However shadowy its past, the opera house has attracted plenty of support for its future.

As of mid-June, the city, county and state had pitched in a total of $1 million in bonds and grants. Price, a longtime resident, said Havre de Grace had just committed another $250,000 and several grant applications were outstanding.

Now that his board has completed an economic study, he said, members will be reaching out to local businesses and anyone who wants to can sponsor one of the 200 new red velvet chairs (at $1,000 each) or purchase naming rights to the black-box theater ($200,000) or the theater itself ($500,000).

It will never be the Met, or even the Hippodrome, Price said, but it should make the 100 block of North Union a destination stop, attract the occasional reasonably well known national act and, if all goes well, serve as a conference center for nearby businesses.

He's so optimistic that even the thought that fire sirens could go off next door during a show doesn't bother him.

That, he said, would only underscore the place's greatest charm.

"Welcome to small-town America," he said.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Bryna Zumer contributed to this article.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com