December 4, 2023

SAUGERTIES, NY – The 6.5-acre blue stone maze rising from a quarry here is one of the wonders of the Hudson Valley, a masterpiece of art by a self-taught sculptor who spent more than half his life building it with thousands of stones to create, infinite patience and no cement.

Opus 40, the name of which evokes the perseverance of its creator Harvey Fite, is a monument to the upper limits of hard work and dedication, which took nearly 37 years to build.

But now, some say, that emotional triumph has been tarnished by the ordinary: a chain-link fence nearly four hundred feet long that wraps around one of its edges, spoiling its beauty and being the product of a long smoldering argument.

“One man built the whole thing – it’s incredible,” said Alvah L. Weeks Jr., the city’s construction inspector. “It’s sad this fence. Why couldn’t you come up with anything? “

Participants in the dispute include the Fite family, the nonprofit that runs Opus 40, and the neighbors who surround them. While the argument is full of unsubstantiated theories and unsolicited allegations, it boils down to an argument about the house Fite built that adjoins his masterful creation.

The house is still owned by Tad Richards, Fit’s 81-year-old stepson, and his wife, Pat, and is run by their 20-year-old grandson, who rented it out online, allows guests to camp nearby and use it as a Place for gatherings.

The neighbors have been complaining about the events and Airbnb guests who are said to be making noise well into the wee hours of the morning. The small nonprofit that runs the website believes these activities are a security risk and a legal liability.

In May, step on the fence the nonprofit put up to separate Fit’s genius, which is theirs, from Fit’s house, which they don’t.

“The fence is over the top – tasteless,” said Gerald Pallor, 73, of Saugerties, a longtime friend of the Richards family. “Sure, there is a better way to resolve disputes than to set something up.”

Jonathan Becker, President of the Board of Directors of Opus 40 Inc. said, “Security is an absolute – non-negotiable issue” and that the fence, unsightly as it may be, is necessary until a broader solution can be found.

“Harvey Fite spent nearly 40 years building this sculpture, and this temporary fence won’t be a factor in this story,” Becker said.

It’s hard to imagine how Fite, who worked in the quiet of his quarry to build what has been compared to a North American Stonehenge, would react to the noise that now surrounds it.

Angry neighbors have filed a noise petition and repeatedly complained about activities in the house at local council meetings. Family members have put together a collection of documents called “Opusgate” to record what they consider to be their abuse by various parties. Her supporters have set up a Facebook group and started a petition calling for the fence to be removed.

In a recent flare-up, Steven Dunning, a neighbor, called the police shortly after 3 a.m. to report loud music and a party at the Fite House, according to police records. About 12 hours later, the Richardses’ grandson, Arick Manocha, called the police to report Dunning – whose wife works in Opus 40 – for trespassing and yelling at the resident.

“I’m at the end of my rope,” Dunning said at a recent city meeting.

The quarry that became the site of Opus 40 was bought by Fite in 1938 while he was a teacher at nearby Bard College. There he built the house a year later at a time when Fite, initially an acting teacher, had already switched to sculpture.

After traveling to Honduras in 1939 to help restore the Mayan ruins, Fite began teaching himself how to finely put stones together without mortar or cement. Every summer he worked on his extensive rock formation, free from his teaching duties. In 1963, Fite added one of the finishing touches: a nine-ton boulder that he would use as a centerpiece, a 4.5-foot monolith that shot triumphantly into the air. Opus 40, as some have noted, was marked with an exclamation mark.

Fite died while still working on Opus 40 in 1976. (He fell into the quarry from an abyss on the property while driving a lawnmower, according to his obituary in the New York Times.) He had said it would take him 40 years to complete the project and when he was old died of 72 years, it was fully furnished with ramps, stairs, pools, moats and underground passages, all of hand-carved stone placed with remarkable precision.

“He left some unfinished areas; but Opus 40 is as complete as it ever would have been, ”wrote Tad Richards in the book, Opus 40: The First 20 Years. “It was the product of Fit’s incessant vision and could only be stopped by his death.”

Barbara Fite, the artist’s wife, founded the nonprofit Opus 40, Inc. to care for his masterpiece and ran it until a year before her death in 1987. Her son Tad lived and ran the house on the property non-profit organization for years after his mother’s death.

He turned control of the organization in 2018 after saying Alan Siegel, the former director of the Thompson Family Foundation, had expressed an interest in funding the nonprofit and buying the Fite House to combine with the sculpture site that is now separately owned by the non-profit. (An organization run by Richards couldn’t buy the Fite House from itself without breaking nonprofit regulations.)

Siegel drove the development of the organization from a family business to a professionalized non-profit organization and so a new independent board was appointed. However, in March 2019, Siegel died unexpectedly before the house was bought. Without a seal at the top, the foundation he headed said it could no longer run the fundraising campaigns.

“Things went downhill from there,” said Tad Richards.

The list of complaints from all parties has grown. Officials from nonprofits say that when they took over the organization they had to clean up the messy bookkeeping the family left behind. They later noticed items such as wooden benches, sculptures, and quarrying tools from Opus 40 were missing, and in a letter, the nonprofit accused the Richards and their grandson of taking them and selling them to a local antique store. The non-profit organization then changed the locks on the doors of the quarry museum.

The Richardses said they had financial problems and only sold items that were theirs. They have complained that the nonprofit is not maintaining the site properly and, as Tad Richards put it, “letting the hedges go wild”.

Now there’s a lawsuit that complicates matters, one from a local businessman who once had a deal to buy the house with Richards’ grandson for $ 580,000, according to court documents. As part of the deal, according to court records, businessman David Hanzl bought a house in nearby Kingston for the Richardses, and Hanzl and Manocha were to run the Fite House together as a short-term rental.

But the sale of the Fite House never came off. The civil lawsuit accuses the Richards and their grandson of “ropeing” Hanzl into a ruthless plan to save the family financially, and says the Richards now live rent-free in the Kingston house that Hanzl bought them.

Tad Richards said in an interview that he “stayed up to date” when Hanzl withdrew from buying the Fite House.

Manocha said it was always the intention of his grandparents to “solve these problems” and buy the Kingston home after the Fite home was sold.

Things escalated in May when the nonprofit officially announced in a letter to the Richardses that the organization was disconnecting from the house after paying for years to use the family driveway as part of the park entrance and occasionally working with the family on different programs. It also said that creating a new entrance to the sculpture and putting up a fence would work.

The nonprofit has said that there must be an “adequate and mandatory safety, program and management plan for Fite House” before the fence falls. Becker, the nonprofit’s chairman, emailed Tad Richards in July outlining some more specific “healthy framework ideas” like camping bans, loud noises after 10pm, and events with more than 12 people. He insisted that if interested parties spend a fraction of the time they spent on social media posting on a safety plan, an agreement could be reached “in an afternoon”.

One solution would be for the nonprofit to buy the house, an idea that has been around for years but one that requires the money to be raised for a down payment. Organization officials say they would like this to happen. Manocha said that because the nonprofit “made it impossible” to convert the property into a business, “our minds moved to selling.”

Becker said in late July that he plans to meet with Tad Richards soon to re-negotiate a possible deal. And on Friday representatives from Opus 40, the Richards family and the city met to discuss Becker’s framework for an agreement.

Everyone agrees that the sculpture itself is in dire need of repair and that if they can iron out their differences, the focus can be returned to preserving Harvey Fit’s artistic masterpiece and personal legacy.

One recent afternoon, Tad Richards indulged in a moment of optimism and thought as he stood next to the house he grew up in and contemplated a work of art that shaped his life. “It means more than I can say,” he said.

Sheelagh McNeill contributed to the research.