Opera House renovation

Havre de Grace's 143-year-old opera house on Union Avenue in recent years has served as home to the Tidewater Players; until the early 1990s, it had served for decades as Havre de Grace City Hall. Renovating the opera house, which dates to 1871, is projected to cost about $2.8 million. Renovating the opera house, which dates to 1871, is projected to cost about $2.8 million. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF, The Aegis / June 27, 2014)

The theater is dark and cool on a sweltering recent afternoon, the colored wigs, stepladders and old furniture in the aisles remnants of a just-ended community play.

Handbills in a glass case recall a 1905 musical. The ceiling is antique tin. The concession stand sits not off a lobby, but among its 120 seats.

If the Havre de Grace Opera House feels less like a Harford County La Scala than a blend of off-Broadway, the Roaring '20s and Mayberry, it might be because it has been asked to play so many different roles during its 144-year history.

It's about to take a star turn.

Civic leaders in this bayside town have raised $1 million toward making the old playhouse — one scholar says it might be the state's oldest theater — the anchor of a state-of-the-art cultural and community center.

The $3 million project, scheduled to break ground next April, is to include renovations to the theater, on the second floor of the Opera House Building on North Union Avenue, and the building itself, blending 21st-century touches such as tiered seating, a glass atrium and a black-box theater with 1920s ceilings and a neoclassical brick facade.

Organizers say the project will make the opera house the only theater in the county accessible to the public at an affordable cost and capable of hosting banquets and conferences in addition to plays and concerts.

"There's a crying need for a facility like this [in Harford County], and I believe people will come out of the woodwork to use it," said William Price, chairman of the Havre de Grace Opera House Foundation, which is raising money for the project.

But the building — situated beside a Civil War-era jail and a firehouse in the city's historic district — isn't just a harbinger of a cultural life to come. It's also a colorful, if murky, look into the area's past, and America's.

Old-timers will tell you the city-owned structure has played host to a range of community functions over the past six decades.

When local historian Ellsworth Shank moved to town in the early 1950s, the first floor held City Council meetings — "we had a water problem, and it didn't smell too good." At various times, he said, the building has housed a public school, city offices, civic organizations and clubs.

Once the place to go for proms and sock hops, the building has been the headquarters for the Tidewater Players, a local theater group, since 1979.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt spoke in front of the opera house in 1912 as he sought another term on the Bull Moose ticket. Ghosts are said to haunt the place, and two years ago producers of the TV series "House of Cards" filmed scenes in the old council room, making sure to get shots of its wainscoted paneling.

"It made for a great Gaffney, S.C., council chambers," said Patrick Sypolt, the city's risk manager.

The structure went up in 1870. So little documentation of its earliest years survives that organizers have had to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks. No one seems to know who built the opera house, for example.

"This project has called for some forensic reconstruction," said Price, a lighting systems director with a background in theater history.

It's clear the facility has always been host to plays and concerts. Yellowed programs list performers for shows such as Beethoven's "Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II" in 1905.

This season, the Tidewater Players staged "Hairspray" and "Spamalot," which were generally hailed by local critics. A bluegrass band has played there periodically.

Despite the building's name, it is unclear whether legitimate opera was ever staged there — but the question is great fodder for speculation.

At least one photo exists of the opera house before it was nearly destroyed by fire in 1925. The building originally stood three stories high, tall enough to accommodate a "fly house," an upper level that allows props to be raised and changed during performances.

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