Opus 40: Harvey Fite's Bluestone Sculpture Park in Upstate NY

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 

Opus 40
In 1938, Harvey Fite purchased an abandoned bluestone quarry in the town of Saugerties, New York. The 12-acre parcel was full of raw materials that Fite would use for his Opus 40 sculpture, as well as his studio and what would later become known as the Fite House. Opus 40 Archive

People have long marveled at ancient structures like the Great Pyramid of Giza, Stonehenge and the statues on Easter Island, raising questions about how they were built without modern technology and machinery. But in New York's Hudson Valley, there sits a 6.5-acre (2.6-hectare) earthwork sculpture from the 20th century that was hand-sculpted during a 37-year period. Most fascinating of all – this sculpture, known as Opus 40, is the work of one man.

The creative genius behind Opus 40 was Harvey Fite, an actor turned sculptor who taught at Bard College in New York and exhibited around the world.

Part sculpture, part landscape, part stone trail, Opus 40 features "an interlocking series of terraces, ramps, and steps that were intended to serve as a showcase for [Fite's] figural sculptures," according to the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area website. The name comes from the length of time Fite estimated the work would take – 40 years.

Opus 40
The monolithic centerpiece stone for the sculpture park is 15 feet long and weighs approximately 9 tons.
Opus 40 Archive

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Who Was Harvey Fite?

Fite was born in Pittsburgh in 1903 and grew up in Texas, according to the Opus 40 website. After giving up the study of law to pursue the ministry at St. Stephen's College (now Bard College) in Hudson Valley, Fite discovered his love of the arts. He spent time performing with theater companies, then joined Bard College as a drama instructor in 1933, but soon turned his attention to sculpture.

In 1938, Fite bought a 12-acre (5-hectare) abandoned bluestone quarry in Saugerties, New York, planning to use the material for his sculpture.

"It was earth that had essentially been torn apart," says Caroline Crumpacker, executive director of the Opus 40 Sculpture Park. "I have incredible gratitude for him. For creating the artwork but also for showing us that we can adapt. That we can take something that looks like a somewhat traumatic experience and make something relevant, timeless and meaningful out of it."

The year after he purchased the property, Fite joined the Carnegie Institute on an ancient Mayan sculpture restoration project in Honduras. Impressed with the knowledge of raw materials exhibited by the Mayan people, he returned home and began implementing techniques he learned from the project.

Opus 40
Harvey Fite at work, breaking up bluestone. His house is seen in the background.
Opus 40 Archive

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Why Did He Build This Masterpiece?

Initially, Fite looked to sculpt statues in areas of the property, but as he kept going, the statues got swallowed up in his larger work, and the project of building the site became the artwork, according to Crumpacker.

"He originally purchased the property because he was a sculptor who liked to work with bluestone," she says. But he became inspired by the landscape.

For nearly four decades, Fite worked mostly alone, with occasional assistance from students, according to Crumpacker. His method was dry keystone masonry, which is laying stone without mortar, a skill he learned through trial and error.

While creating his masterpiece, Fite met and married Barbara Fairbanks Richards, continued sculpting and teaching, had solo shows in Europe and studied sculpture in Asia.

From 1940 until the end of his life, he worked on Opus 40, adding a 15-foot (4.5-meter) monolith as a centerpiece in 1963. With the 9-ton (8-metric ton) vertical sculpture, the site was "capped off with an exclamation point," wrote Matt Stevens in The New York Times.

In 1976, at the age of 72, Fite was riding a lawnmower and fell into the quarry on the property and died. His wife incorporated Opus 40 as a nonprofit and oversaw it until her death.

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Visiting Opus 40

Fite's living sculpture has lived on, and today, Opus 40 is a sculpture park and museum open to the public April through November.

Opus 40
The sculpture garden at Opus 40 with the fall foliage as a backdrop.
Opus 40 Archive

In addition to the sculpture and Opus 40's 55 acres (22 hectares) of forest, meadow and trails, there is a quarry museum, a gallery and a store. Opus 40 hosts events like film screenings, cabarets and concerts. In fact, Rolling Stone called it the Northeast's best place for an outdoor performance.

While there is plenty of fun to be had at Opus 40, there are some activities that are not permitted, like playing on the sculpture, which could prove dangerous, as Fite's own fatal accident made clear. For the same reason, the sculpture is closed at night.

If you plan to visit, the entry fee is $12 for adults; $9 for seniors, students and veterans; and free for children younger than 4. For more information, visit the Opus 40 website .

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