Opus 40: An Update

In March I wrote a column about a fundraising campaign to help restore one of my favorite places, Opus 40, in Saugerties, NY. There has been plenty of good news since March.

Built in an abandoned bluestone quarry in upstate New York by one man, Harvey Fite, Opus 40 is a contemporary American version of Stonehenge or the collection of Easter Island moai.

Photo by Tom Bookhout

An aerial view. Photo by Tom Bookhout

Fite was a sculptor and fine arts professor at nearby Bard College when he purchased the bluestone quarry in the 1930s. If you have ever walked on a sidewalk in Manhattan, you have walked on bluestone from this or a nearby location. Using the rubble that had not become NYC sidewalks, Fite filled one six-and-one-half-acre section with hand-laid circles of bluestone paths and ramps, leading nowhere and everywhere, from fifteen feet below the ground level up to the magnificent centerpiece, the obelisk, a nine-ton, three-story-tall single stone, which from different perspectives seems to point at the nearby Catskill Mountains, join with the range, or appear to be the reason the Catskills are there in the first place.

Harvey Fite working at the base of Opus 40

Harvey Fite working at the base of Opus 40

Working between between 1939 and 1976, Fite did it all alone, using ancient techniques. A history of the site describes the project: “Working alone, and largely self-taught, he built the gallery of rubble from an abandoned bluestone quarry on the property, using an adaptation of dry key stone masonry, a traditional technique which involves the mortarless careful fitting of stone upon stone.” At first intended to be a showcase for his smaller scale works of art, his wood and stone sculptures, over the 37 years that he worked on it the site itself became Fite’s life work. He died in 1976, three years shy of the 40 years that gave Opus 40 its name. By the 1960s, when various artists started to create large-scale environmental art pieces, Fite had been at work on his project for decades.

Hurricane Irene in 2011 and Hurricane Sandy the following year delivered a one-two punch to the sculpture park; Irene saturated the ground beneath the ramps and walls and Sandy’s damage included a collapse of a 14-foot-tall support wall. Fite’s stepson and his family have engaged the efforts of master stonewallers and stonemasons, who are using those stones that fell and can still be fitted together and finding others from local quarries to repair the damage and rebuild the broken sections. Where possible, they will employ Fite’s own tools and techniques to complete the repairs.

An estimated $30,000 was calculated to be needed to fund the first stage of the work, and here, not very ancient techniques were employed: an Indiegogo campaign was started to raise the funds. Between March 16 and May 14, when it closed, $32,000 was raised. Even though the Indiegogo campaign was a success, and is now closed for donations, it was a success for the first stage of restoration work; it is estimated an additional $60,000 will be needed for future work, to be completed in 2015. Opus 40 still has a donation page with its Indiegogo donation rewards listed for those interested in giving: Opus 40 Membership and Donations.

A video was released last month showing the scale of the project and the challenge presented by not using hydraulic machines but using a gin pole and other man-powered equipment to lift and move the stones into place:

In the summer of 2012, master stonewaller Sean Adcock of North Wales, United Kingdom, and Tomas Lipps of the Stone Foundation, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, led a team in taking down and rebuilding a portion of Opus 40’s 11-foot-tall central ramp to demonstrate the feasibility of restoring the collapsed wall. More recently, during the summer of 2014, a team led by stonemason Timothy Smith of Clermont, New York, completed prep work for the restoration, removing and stacking the loose stone. The final phase of the restoration, which will be headed by Adcock, is scheduled for the spring of 2015.

This fall, the Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) released its annual “Landslide” list, what it calls a “thematic compendium of threatened and at-risk landscapes and landscape features.” Eleven nationally renowned sites were named, and Opus 40 is one of them. The TCLF describes the sites as “eleven examples of land-based art from ancient petroglyphs to earthworks, folk art creations, single artist, multi-acre installations and others threatened with demolition, neglect, poor maintenance, vandalism and lack of funding.”

The eleven sites are: The works of Athena Tacha, at various locations; the Bay Lights by Leo Villareal, San Francisco, CA; Greenwood Pond: Double Site by Mary Miss, Des Moines, Iowa; the Heidelberg Project by Tyree Guyton, Detroit, MI; Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert, Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture, Joshua Tree, CA; Opus 40 by Harvey Fite, Saugerties, NY; Untitled (Johnson Pit No. 30) by Robert Morris, Seatac, WA; Watts Towers by Simon Rodia, Los Angeles, CA; Wells Petroglyph Preserve by Archaic and Ancestral Puebloans, Mesa Prieta, NM; White Rock Lake Wildlife Water Theater by Frances Bagley and Tom Orr, Dallas, TX; and 70th Street Garden by Russell Page, The Frick Collection, New York, NY.

The page that the Cultural Landscape Foundation dedicated to Opus 40 has more history and beautiful photos, like the one at top, by Thomas Hahn: Opus 40.

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If I had not been a student at Marist College in the 1980s, where Harvey Fite’s stepson was teaching, I quite possibly would still not know of Opus 40’s existence, even though I live in the same county. My teacher-friend grew up at Opus 40 and still resides there. In the early ’90s, I attended a friend’s wedding at Opus and in the summer of 1998, I volunteered there, helping direct parking for that year’s music acts. The quarry is a natural amphitheater and the obelisk is an eye-grabbing stage set; the concerts that summer included a blues festival, Orleans, and Pat Metheny.

One concert at Opus 40, in 1982, has become legendary. The jazz great Sonny Rollins was performing and the documentary great Robert Mugge was there to film the concert; the film was released as “Saxophone Colossus.” While improvising during his piece, “The Bridge,” Rollins started to wander around the stage and fell several feet to a lower level, out of the sight of the audience, his fellow musicians, the cameras. He broke his foot, but after a moment, he started to play where he had left off but from his new location and lying on his back. The famous moment comes at around 3:50 in this video:

More funds are needed to help restore Opus 40, and I will write an update with the links to any new funding campaigns that may be launched.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 13 asks, “Our ten-minute free-write is back for another round! Tap away on whatever comes to mind, no filters attached. (Feel free to edit later, or just publish as-is).”

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  1. genusrosa · November 13, 2014

    That’s incredible–from modern Stonehenge to jazz, and all kinds of grit in between! (and that last shot of the foot, still keeping time…!!) Thank you for this fascinating post.

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. Mark Aldrich · May 9, 2015

    Reblogged this on The Gad About Town and commented:

    Jen and I will be at Opus 40 today, so no new post. Gil Gutierrez is performing. Photos (and video?) to follow.


    In video in this article, saxophonist Sonny Rollins tumbles and continues playing after landing on his back in what may be one of the most heroic defeats of a “cringe-worthy” moment yet recorded.


  5. terryb · May 9, 2015

    Thank you for posting this. I live only about an hours drive from this wonderful place, but have yet to visit it… I have intended for some time now to do so… Hopefully I will in the near future.
    Sonny Rollins certainly did overcome that cringe worthy moment triumphantly!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · May 11, 2015

      My girlfriend (raised in Orange County) was very pleasantly surprised at how quickly we got there. (A little over an hour, as you note above, Goshen to Fite Road, outside Saugerties.) She is a brand-new life-long fan of Opus 40. And the concert was beautiful. Thanks for taking the time to write-Mark

      Liked by 1 person

  6. terryb · May 12, 2015

    You’re welcome

    Liked by 1 person

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