Opus 40, with its vast terraces and unexpected pools and hypnotic sense of design and layering, is an American masterpiece. Architectural Digest’s Brendan Gill called it “the greatest earthwork sculpture I have ever seen.”
Now, two Saugerties natives, Ed Gerrard and Peter Himberger, are working on a documentary about the work. “You’re not going to find anything else like this in the world.” said Gerrard. “I’ve traveled all over the world, all over the place. As far as America’s concerned, being only a couple of hundred years old and not taking into account the natives, this is really one of the first great pieces of Americana work – natural pieces of work.”
The gravity of Opus 40 can only be grasped by spending time with it, walking in it, on it, touching the walls and admiring the incredible handiwork that went into it, and imagining the amount of dedication and drive that had to go into constructing something with this much gravity. There might not even be a nifty art phrase to define it – but I’d venture “modern Promethean.”
The documentary will tell the story of Harvey Fite, the Bard professor who made Opus 40 his life’s work. It’s a story that’s been told many times in print, from periodicals to a book by Fite’s stepson Tad Richards. But the planned documentary will be the first film.
Gerrard and Himberger, brothers, are Saugerties natives, and owners of Impact Artist Management, an entertainment management company that has managed Gogol Bordello, Dr. John, and Teddy Pendergrass, and supervised music on Hollywood movies. Their interest in the sculpture was rekindled when it suffered weather damage in several places recently.
“I’m from here, my family has been here for a long, long time,” said Gerrard. “I graduated with the class of ’73 (from Saugerties High)… our family was quarrymen, going back to the 1850s, so we knew about this place. But the thing about it was that it was never open to the public. Harvey wanted it for himself. After his death it became open to the public.
“The idea was, originally, that he was going to have some place to put his artwork. So he started messing around with the quarry and literally built this whole thing himself,” says Gerrard, in hushed amazement. “He called it Opus 40 because he thought it would take him 40 years. It took him until the 37th year, when he tragically died in an accident on the property.”
Fite, originally from Pennsylvania, moved to Texas in his youth. His family didn’t have much money, though his father, a subsistence farmer, was a talented carpenter, says Richards. “His father was known for making high-quality violins, but he never made any money off of it.” Fite made his way into the upper crust through his penchant for ballroom dancing. He was always the first choice dance partner at cotillions, says Richards.
After attending Houston Law School, Fite was sent to upstate New York to St. Stephen’s college by his Episcopal bishop. After a fit of ministerial study, Fite was bitten by the acting bug and signed up with a traveling troupe of thespians. “Harvey always had to be doing something,” says Richards. “And when you’re a traveling actor, there is a lot of downtime.” Fite discovered his final, sticking talent one night before a show. A seamstress’s spool rolled under his chair. Being a good, southwestern boy, he pulled out his jackknife and started whittling and carving. He was struck with an epiphany: Harvey Fite, ballroom dancer, social climber, actor, would-be-minister, was going to be a sculptor.
In 1933, the same year that Dr. Donald Tewksbury, dean of the college, decided to change St. Stephens College to Bard College in an attempt to court more secular students, Fite’s alma mater hired him as the director of its Fine Arts program.
Fite spent a sabbatical studying the Mayan ruins of Copán in Mexico, where he developed a fascination and abiding respect for dry mason construction, which uses no adhesive; instead layering free standing stones to create a structure – the method he later used for Opus 40. After getting hired at the newly christened Bard College, Fite became involved with the Maverick artist colony and built his home on a rock quarry on the edge of Saugerties. He worked on Opus 40 primarily in the summertime, when he wasn’t distracted by his work at Bard, mostly in his boxer shorts because of the stifling heat. And he looked good doing it.
“I mean, the guy was like Adonis. The physique on this guy was incredible,” says Gerrard. True. Photos in Richards’ book and in Opus 40’s museum portray a rather-ripped Fite.
Harvey Fite has a great story. It’s got dancing and acting and features other 20th century notables and artists (Fite was pals with comparative religion maestro Joseph Campbell), and stars a pretty studly guy. It’s surprising, actually, that it hasn’t been made into a movie yet, considering the uncanny story arc of Fite’s life.
Gallagher and Himberger say that their desire to tell Fite’s story stems from an admiration for his work, and for the area as a whole.
“You can’t find a place like this anyplace else in the world – a place as beautiful as this, a place as artistic as this, that close to an urban area (New York). That’s why Peter and I really want to tell the story of Opus 40. Not only is it a great story of human interest and of art and of everything else, but it’s a great story of the Hudson Valley. The Hudson Valley, because we grew up here, is so embedded in us, so embedded in our souls – and we’ve been around the world,” says Gallagher.
“We’ve been to a lot of places,” agrees Himberger. “But there’s no place in the world as beautiful, to us, as the Hudson Valley and places like Opus 40.”
While the project is currently in the development phase and there is no set release date, the working title of the documentary, according to Himberger, is One Man. The name is based on their admiration for Fite’s mind-boggling dedication to building Opus 40, which he crafted all on his own, shooing away would-be helpers.
“He built this all on his own,” says Himberger in a breath of resigned astonishment. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to even rake my front yard. But this? This was just one guy…”