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Opus 40

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Opus 40

Opus 40
Location Saugerties, NY
Area 7 acres (2.8 ha)
Built 1939
Architect Harvey Fite
Architectural style No Style Listed
Governing body Private
NRHP Reference # 01000238 [1]
Added to NRHP March 12, 2001
Opus 40

is a large environmental sculpture in Saugerties, New York, created by sculptor and quarryman Harvey Fite (1903—1976). It comprises a sprawling series of dry-stone ramps, pedestals and platforms covering 6.5 acres (2.6 ha) of a bluestone quarry.


  • Overview 1
  • Trivia 2
  • References 3
  • Further reading 4
  • External links 5


Fite, then a professor of sculpture and theater at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, purchased the disused quarry site in 1938, expecting to use it as a source of raw stone for his representational sculpture. Instead, inspired by a season of work restoring Mayan ruins in Honduras, he began creating sculptures for installation in the quarry space itself.

To organize this exhibition, he quarried additional stone to build ramps and walkways to lead to the individual works, doing all the work by hand, and using the traditional hand tools that had been used by the local quarrymen before him. As the rampwork expanded, Fite realized that the 1.5-ton (1.36 tonne) statue, “Flame,” which had occupied the central pedestal, had become too small for the scale to which his work had grown, and he replaced it with a 9-ton bluestone pillar which he had found in a nearby streambed. This happened in 1960, more than 20 years after he had begun work on his quarry. To raise the central monolith, Fite, an enthusiastic student of the techniques used by sculptors and builders of antiquity, adapted principles used by the ancient Egyptians. He removed “Flame” and its base, and continued to remove stone until he had formed a crater four feet deep in the spot where the monolith was to stand. He placed the stone so that it rested horizontally, with the tapered end over the hole. Using guy wires attached to a winch on the back of a pickup truck, Fite began the laborious process of raising the stone a few inches at a time, then propping it up with a crib of heavy wooden blocks. He continued this process until gravity took over, and the stone slid down into the hole, coming to rest at a 45 degree angle.

Fite constructed a huge A-frame out of 30-foot (9.1 m) timbers and raised it over the monolith, then used a chain hoist to lift the stone and suspend it over the hole. Still working stone by stone, he filled in the hole and built up a pedestal, topped by a three-quarter ton capstone. The monolith had previously been made ready by trimming its base, so that its center of gravity was exactly perpendicular to the capstone. This entailed a calculation of extreme precision, one that was worked out by Fite and his neighbor Berthel Wrolsen, a local man who was a self-taught engineering genius and an unofficial consultant to Fite on many structural issues over the years. The calculations were especially difficult in that the top of the monolith is not only wider than the base, but also asymmetrical. Lowered into place, the monolith was to be held there entirely by its own weight and balance. Fite and Wrolsen’s calculations, and Fite’s execution, proved to be correct. The monolith remains standing after nearly half a century’s exposure to all kinds of weather.

He had originally planned to carve the new stone in place (“Flame” had been carved in Fite’s studio), but once the stone was up, he realized that what he had originally conceived as a setting for sculpture had become a sculpture in its own right, and a new kind of sculpture, in which carved representational work was out of place. So he removed the other carved pieces, relocating them on the grounds nearby, and continued to work on this new sculptural concept for the rest of his life.

In the early 1970s, after he had retired from 30 years as a professor at Bard College, Fite built the Quarryman’s Museum on the grounds—a collection of folk tools and artifacts of the quarrying era.

It was around this same time that he finally succumbed to the pressure to give his masterwork a name. At first a joke -- “Classical composers don’t have to name things,” he would say, “they can just number them, Opus One, Opus Two, and so on” -- he eventually arrived at what was certainly an apropos name. Opus is the Latin word for work, and 40 refers to the number of years he expected he would need to complete the work.

Fite died in 1976, in the 37th year of his creation. He died working on it, in a fall. He left some unfinished areas—but, as his stepson, the writer Jonathan Richards, has observed, “Opus 40 is as complete as it ever would have been. It was the product of Fite’s ceaseless vision, and could only have been stopped by his death.”

The following year, his widow, National Register of Historic Places.

Brendan Gill, in the March, 1989 edition of Architectural Digest, called Opus 40 "one of the largest and most beguiling works of art on the entire continent," and he has also called it “the greatest earthwork sculpture I have ever seen.” Though Fite was not associated with the Land Art or Earthworks sculptural movement of the 1970s, he came to be known as a pioneer of that movement, and was recognized in 1977 by the Hirshhorn Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, in a show entitled “Probing the Earth: Contemporary Land Projects,” as a forefather of the earthworks movement.


A Sonny Rollins concert at Opus 40 on August 16, 1986 was filmed for Robert Mugge's documentary "Saxophone Colossus".

The band Mercury Rev recorded "Opus 40", a song about the site, on their 1998 album Deserter's Songs.


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places.  

Further reading

  • Wallis, David (June 2, 2006). "A Monumental Vision of Half a Lifetime". The New York Times. 

External links

  • Opus 40 website
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