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)

They say it ain't over until the fat lady sings, and the colorful life of the Havre de Grace Opera House is clearly far from over.

The building on North Union Avenue, discreetly tucked next to what is now a Susquehanna Hose Company station, has been a focal point for performing arts and city life for Havre de Grace, on and off, since it was built in 1871.

It's the focus of a $2.8 million renovation project that could dramatically upgrade the building's look and, organizers say, make it accessible to people of all generations.

The fundraising campaign underway is the biggest effort at remodeling the historic property to date. Those behind it, and those who regularly use the building, are hopeful it will have a big payoff.

The entire 100 block of North Union Street could look pretty different within the next decade.

Just across the street from the opera house, a much pricier project is being rolled out to re-build the Havre de Grace library branch.

Public money is going toward both buildings, and the opera house's foundation just celebrated getting $250,000 from the state (a $200,000 grant from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development and $50,000 approved in a bond bill), pushing revenues past $1 million.

The foundation had received roughly $725,000 toward the project, including a 2013 state grant of $250,000 and another $250,000 from the city last year, according to foundation chairman William Price.

"That is going to be a very synergistic part of the city," Bill Watson, head of the city's tourism advisory board, said. "Just for the arts and entertainment district, it's going to be a boon for that."

"The city owns the opera house and will continue to own it, and through a private-public partnership, we will be able to utilize the building for performances as well as general community services," Watson said.

Tide is high

After its original role as an opera headquarters ended, the two-story building (that was once a three-story building) served as city hall, a dance hall and the home of Tidewater Players.

Laurie Sentman Starkey, president of the board of directors for the theatre group, recalled going to dances at the building while growing up in Havre de Grace.

"When I was young, it was a teen center," Starkey, 49, said. "I remember they had a dance marathon and I slept on the stage."

"There's a lot of people that have fond memories of the building," she said.

Tidewater Players has been at the opera house since 1979. City Mayor Wayne Dougherty said although the building had been used for many years, it had not really been well maintained.

"There were a lot of issues with that building," he said. About five years ago, "I put out an initiative to make it safe again in dealing with lead paint, bringing it up to code as much as we could."

When Tidewater Players came in, Starkey said, the building was still an "aqua color" and had folding chairs.

Volunteers with the company did all the painting, replaced a ripped black drape with a new green one, extended the stage and got real theater chairs from Aberdeen Proving Ground, she said.

The new renovation would make the building handicap-accessible, up the seating capacity from 120 to 200, upgrade the theater, connect it with the firehouse via the second floor and add a box office, dressing rooms and meeting space.