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Garden Visit: Opus 40, An Environmental Sculpture in the Catskills

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Garden Visit: Opus 40, An Environmental Sculpture in the Catskills

May 17, 2022

In the eastern Catskill Mountains in New York lies an unusual park. While parks tend to have gardens and plants, this one is primarily made of stone that complements the natural surroundings. It is an environmental sculpture—a garden of stone, spanning over six acres—and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Photography by Joy Yagid.

View of the Monolith in the background, and the Rectangle and Circle pools in the foreground. Walking around the ramps and paths imparts the feeling of flowing through the space, from one area to the next.
Above: View of the Monolith in the background, and the Rectangle and Circle pools in the foreground. Walking around the ramps and paths imparts the feeling of flowing through the space, from one area to the next.

Built over the span of almost 40 years by the sculptor Henry Fite, a former professor, actor, divinity school student, and law clerk, it was his masterwork. When pressed for a name for the piece, Fite joked and replied, “Opus 40″—Opus for the Latin word for “work” and the number 40, because he believed it would take 40 years to complete. He was close. A tragic onsite accident claimed his life 37 years into its creation.

One of the many vistas from inside the sculpture. A dry keyed wall to the left and part of the quarry wall on the right.
Above: One of the many vistas from inside the sculpture. A dry keyed wall to the left and part of the quarry wall on the right.

Opus 40 is a complex collection of ramps, pedestals, pools, steps, and vistas that rise up from the earth. The sculpture is dry stonework (also known as dry key stonework ), meaning there is no mortar or cement holding the stones together. Keystones are larger stones that give the wall stability. Fite learned this technique in Honduras, while assisting the Carnegie Institute in restoring ancient Mayan ruins. Amazed by the Mayans’ skill and their ability to integrate buildings into the natural landscape, Fite returned inspired to do the same in an old bluestone quarry in Saugerties, NY.

Dry keyed stone work. The larger stones stabilize and lock in the smaller, thinner stones.
Above: Dry keyed stone work. The larger stones stabilize and lock in the smaller, thinner stones.
The elaborate ebb and flow of the stone walls.
Above: The elaborate ebb and flow of the stone walls.

Not everything here is a stone wall or path. Fite was a world renowned sculptor who studied with master sculptors in Italy and had solo shows in Paris. Opus 40 features a collection of his humanistic sculptures around the park. The Bather overlooks the pool close to Fite’s home.

The Bather by The House Pool.
Above: The Bather by The House Pool.

Fite’s Flame, an abstract mixture of Greek, Asian, and Renaissance influences, was to be the centerpiece. However, Fite realized it would be dwarfed by the size of Opus 40 and he chose the Monolith, a huge stone slab that was abandoned by the quarry owners, instead.

Fite’s Flame.
Above: Fite’s Flame.

The Monolith stands in the center of a wide pedestal and can be seen from almost every part of the sculpture. Fite didn’t change much of the stone besides leveling off the bottom to make it stand up without help. Fite and his colleagues figured out the center of gravity of the stone, and were able to place it perfectly on its pedestal. Only a thin layer of lead seals the gaps between the stone and its base.

The Monolith.
Above: The Monolith.

For another garden visit in the Catskills, see:

Garden Visit: A Couple’s Lush and Romantic Sanctuary in the Catskills

For more on dry stone walls, see:

Hardscaping 101: Dry Stone Walls

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