Don’t touch the glass.
Don’t take photos.
Don’t stand too close to the exhibit.
Sound familiar? Perhaps it’s because they’re all part of the dialogue de rigueur at well-meaning museums in the Hudson Valley (and beyond). While their frequency is far from a bad thing — if everyone touched the Mona Lisa, can you imagine what shape it would be in today? — there’s something to be said for hands-on experiences, too.
Harvey Fite understood that. A visionary artist, the Hudson Valleyite spent the bulk of his life crafting what is known today as Opus 40, a 6.5-acre sculpture on the outskirts of Saugerties in Ulster County. Now a designated National Historic Register site, the grounds include 55 acres of meadows and trails that encircle Fite’s pièce de résistance, a multi-level bluestone composition that loops in on itself to create hidden chasms, pools, and ledges that practically beg to be explored. At the center of it all stands a nine-ton monolith, an incredible block of stone that Fite managed to balance so perfectly that it continues to remain unanchored.
Seems incredible? That’s because it is. The lifetime work of one man, Opus 40 strikes visitors with its sheer vastness, its manmade design that somehow operates so harmoniously with the landscape that surrounds it. Upon first glance, it seems like too vast of a project for a single person to ever undertake. Yet there it is, tucked quietly down a country road in Saugerties, just waiting for visitors to come explore.
And explore they do. Opus 40’s executive director Caroline Crumpacker estimates that, on weekends during the season, the grounds can play host to anywhere from 700 to 800 people, with guests traveling from both the Hudson Valley region, New York City, and further afield. It’s hard to deny the allure, of course. After all, how many sculpture parks allow visitors to walk on the actual sculpture, let alone build on it?
Harvey Fite was not a Hudson Valleyite by birth. He celebrated his birthday — on Christmas Day in 1903 — in Pittsburgh. Yet his days in Pennsylvania were short-lived, and his family soon relocated to Texas, where he spent the bulk of his youth.
When it came time to decide upon a career, sculpture did not factor as the first choice for Fite, who originally studied to be a lawyer before traveling to the Hudson Valley to pursue a role in the ministry. It was during his time at St. Stephen’s (now Bard College), that he fell in love with theater and, after a time, sculpture.
By 1933, Fite had developed enough of a reputation as a sculptor to helm the new Fine Arts Division at Bard College. Five years later, he found the perfect place to practice his art in Ulster County. After purchasing an abandoned, 12-acre bluestone quarry in Saugerties, he set his mind to turning the plot of land into a home and studio.
At first, all Fite wanted to do was clear the rubble from his backyard quarry. In no time at all, however, his side project turned into a full-blown endeavor and Opus 40 was officially underway.
With its incredible scope, Opus 40 embodies Fite’s values in art and in life. A handcrafted work, it’s just as much of an ode to the beauty of nature as it is to the man’s unparalleled artistic talent. In regard to development, Fite relied heavily upon dry key construction, or the precise fitting of stones together to create a perfectly pressurized, stable mass. Incredible as it may seem, the effectiveness of the technique speaks for itself, having survived through hurricanes and winter storms aplenty. Even the monolith, though it remains unanchored, refuses to budge, instead standing perfectly upright and rooted at the heart of the three-story structure.
“It’s so heavy,” explains Arick Manocha, Feit’s great-grandson and the tour guide at the Saugerties venue. In regard to how the stone came to be on the property, Manocha reveals how, after spotting it on the grounds of a local pastor’s home and being refused access to it, Feit waited for the pastor’s passing to retrieve it.
Fite named the project Opus 40 as a way to claim his project, which he recognized as the “opus” of his life. He planned to spend 40 years assembling it (thus the mention of “40” in the name). Tragically, an accidental fall off one of the rocks led to his untimely death in May 1976, three years before the forecasted conclusion of his endeavor.
Opus 40 is complete, however. As Crumpacker observes, the sculpture embodies the essence of Fite’s work as much as it ever could. Its detail, enormity, and scope are visionary in a way that make the grounds almost hard to believe. After all, how could a single person bring such a creation to life?
And yet, Fite managed to do just that. Working with flat bluestone slabs that contain markings from the Upper Devonian period in geologic history, the artist prioritized the natural materials that were available to him. At the same time, he made a point to honor what had been there before. Instead of cutting down trees or plowing through fields, he worked with his backyard geography. As visitors to the grounds nowadays can see, trees and ponds operate in tandem with the sculpture. Instead of overshadowing one another, they create a harmony that will last for decades to come.
*In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Opus 40 is currently open for limited visits by appointment. Visit Opus-Online for virtual arts, culture, and education experiences.
As it currently stands, Opus 40 is largely the same as it was at the time of Fite’s death in 1976. A public attraction, it is open to visitors for self-guided and guided tours from Thursdays to Sundays from May to November. The sculpture is the focal point of the grounds, although hiking trails surround it for visitors who want to trek beyond the main site. In one corner, a designated “Be a Sculptor” platform invites visitors to take inspiration from Fite and try their hand at crafting their own sculptures out of loose stones in the area.
At the front of the property, The Quarryman’s Museum is open to guests who want to take a step into the past. A supplemental endeavor of Fite’s, the building showcases a wealth of quarrying tools and household bits. Well-loved hammers and drills are everywhere, as are more personal knickknacks like handmade dominoes and a vintage stove.
While Opus 40 is an ideal destination for school tours and weekend day trips, its widespread grounds are an optimal landscape for community events throughout the season. Beginning in May, the destination plays host to everyone from local musicians and food trucks during Friday night concerts to au naturale experts during foraging walks and guided hikes. During select weekends throughout spring, summer, and fall, Opus 40 hosts weddings as well.
“The thing I find most amazing about Opus 40 is that it’s an aggregate of the Hudson Valley,” Crumpacker observes. Not just a monument to Fite or to the history of quarrying, it’s also a testament to the significance of local artmaking and the inherent beauty of the Hudson River region.
“You can get it all here. You can engage with all of it,” she notes. “The sheer awesomeness of walking around that sculpture on a beautiful day is an amazing experience.”
50 Fite Rd, Saugerties