It’s been called “the most beguiling works of art on the entire continent” by Architectural Digest and “a monument to discipline and hard work.” The Art Newspaper said it was “a testament to the wondrous and crazy things humans can create.” It has the reputation as being “the Stonehenge of North America.” It’s been the backdrops for weddings and photo shoots, and it’s called Opus 40, a Hudson Valley art park and museum that lies just outside of Saugerties, New York. Its name is a combination of the number of years its creator, Harvey Fite, estimated it would take to complete the park, and “opus,” to honor the 6.5 acre rhythmic and connected layout of quarry stone walls and paths he chiseled into shape. In total, the park encompasses about 55 acres of meadows, walking trails and sculpted figures, making this one of the grandest of all outdoor art parks, and a Hudson Valley treasure.
Even on a rainy, grey day, the park invites, and the stone pathways sparkle in the subdued daylight. The smooth surface of the dark stones and the curved walls provide a sense of symmetry, calmness, and balance. The building technique of laying one stone upon another with just its weight for support is truly remarkable to behold, and that it was created by one man boggles the mind. Harvey Fite was pursuing an arts career as a graduate of Bard College (formally St. Stephen’s) in the late 1930s, when he was invited to join his alma mater and start a Fine Arts Department which included sculpting. Needing permanent housing, he purchased a parcel of land near Saugerties that surrounded an abandoned bluestone quarry. Once he completed his home and studio, he had all the materials literally in his backyard to start sculpting the human figures for a theme he called “a tribute to humanism.” As he went about the business of using the quarry stones to create pedestals for these sculpted objects, according to the Opus 40 Guidebook written by Fite’s stepson, Tad Richards, “it became apparent to him that what he was building was not a simple series of pedestals for sculptures, but a sculptured environment that was unique in concept and execution.”
This background is good to know since on arriving at Opus 40, one thinks they’ve missed the art show. What lays before them are paths of stone, going here and there, going up and down, with quarry pools, and walls, and one eye-catching vertical piece called the Monolith. This 9 ton, 13 foot high stone was found on the property and raised using the same ancient techniques of the Egyptian and Easter Island builders. Though Fite originally planned to sculpt the piece once in place, he changed his mind, sensing it was perfect as it was. To build the walls, Fite used another technique called “dry key construction” where he laid flat pieces of stone atop another with large “key” stones placed horizontally throughout for stability. When needing to fit a stone into place, Fite would chisel it to perfection.
With map in hand, visitors can meander about the walkways, view a series of pools used by Harvey and his wife Barbara to cool off, and to keep items cold before electricity was installed in the home. There’s a place for quiet reflection called Poet’s Grove and a performance space called the Amphitheatre which uses the stone’s natural acoustics; there’s also an area for kids to play and stack quarry stones into their own art pieces. The Quarryman’s Museum & Gallery houses Fite’s own tools, a gift shop, local artwork, and a looping short video chronicling the creation of the park, and also illustrating how the Monolith was raised and set into place.
Three years short of his 40-year prediction, Fite died in a fall on the property. Though some areas were left unfinished, Richards writes, “but Opus 40 is as complete as it would ever have been.” With its busy calendar, Opus 40 offers concerts, music, meditation events, night sky gatherings, and outdoor movies. Volunteers are welcome to join their docent team, to help care for the landscaping, or help trailblaze the hiking trails. A fundraiser is currently underway for Bard College and a local non-profit to purchase the original Fite house and adjacent property for a Visitor’s Center, library, and a space for school groups.
About their upcoming schedule: After mid-November, they switch to weekends only. They work with the weather, the light, and the interest of visitors to determine when and by how much to shorten the hours.
For tickets and winter schedule: Opus40.org.
All photos by MJ Hanley-Goff