Thursday, June 11, 2015

Living Rocks, Mighty Chains

In 1938 Harvey Fite bought an unused bluestone quarry in Saugerties, New York near the Hudson River. He wanted it for a supply of stones for his sculpting work. He was the director of Fine Arts at Bard College nearby, and he was a sculptor, although he got there after early attempts at law school, the seminary and a few other occupations, none of which took hold until he discovered he could sculpt.

About the same time in the late 1930s he went on an expedition to Honduras and was awed by the dry stone stacked walls built by the Mayans. He came home, built a house next to the lip of the quarry and began cutting, moving, stacking and fitting rocks into place using no mortar.

Bluestone is not blue -- it's rust colored and slate gray and charcoal. Look at how the walls of the quarry show exactly where the stones want to be split into flat pieces for stacking.

He used only hand tools to break and cut the rocks.

At first his idea was to build rock platforms to display the statues he had carved. But after a few years he realized that the quarry itself was the sculpture, and the Adirondack mountains in the distance called for something of much greater scale.

So he moved his carved statues and began building giant ramps and walls and deep pools out of the quarry rock. He kept building. And kept building. And kept building.

Over 37 years he built the world's largest sculpture measured by surface area. He just kept adding walls and stone alleys and crevasses and steps. He quarried, cut, and stacked every single stone by hand by himself. He used no power tools. He did it alone. Each stone, individually placed.

The main quarry is an undulating, twisting structure capped with a 9 ton obelisk. He found this stone in a stream and winched it into place using ancient Egyptian pulley techniques (there's a grainy black and white film of it at the visitor center). The winding ramps and stepped pits cover several acres.

Then you wander away into the woods around the quarry and the walls just keep going and going and going. In all there are over six acres of stone structures -- the original quarry and the long alleys of walls winding through the woods.

There are steps and stone seats all along the woodland walls inviting you to sit or to climb up a slope. Some walls are unfinished, ending in rubble where unstacked stones lay ready to be picked up and fitted someday to keep the wall going.

Everywhere it looked like the rocks, which were strewn about in mossy stone piles in the woods, had tumbled down the slope and self assembled into fitted walls. I think that was the sculptor's intent, that it should look like the living rocks built this themselves by just falling into place.

As people began viewing the immensity of the structure being built, they asked Harvey Fite what he called it, and he finally came up with Opus 40 -- he said when he hit the 40 year mark it would be finished. After 40 years his masterpiece would be done.

He did not get there. It is still unfinished. At the age of 72, after 37 years of herculean work on his great opus, he died in the quarry, in a catastrophic accident when his riding lawnmower stuck in forward gear and catapulted him over the front edge of the quarry and onto the rocks below.

Deep quarries are dangerous places and walking the ramps of the main sculpture was unnerving -- there are no rails, and the drop offs are 12 feet or more. The slopes are steep and the footing is uneven over the rocks.

But kids are encouraged to clamber over the ramps and walls, and to build cairns out of scrap stones.
The whole place is a kid's delight with hidden pools, tiny alleys, and mysterious crevices you can climb into. Picnics are encouraged.

The intimacy of the spaces surprised me. I was prepared for grand scale and giant proportions and was not disappointed. But it was the small details that amazed me.

Like all great sculptors, Harvey Fite wanted us to see the living spirit in the rock. Like the impression he gave of rock piles in the woods tumbling down on their own to form tidy walls, he built areas in the quarry where the wall gradually became cut stone and then became fitted pieces. Here's a picture of how he did that:

Details like that are everywhere and all the hidden spaces invite lingering. I could have spent hours peeking into deep alleys and discovering little details. But the day was humid, it was noon and the sun was high. And climbing up and over so much rock is surprisingly hard on the legs.

So we took a last look at this amazing structure and the beautiful mountains around it and headed home.

To get back home we had to cross the mighty mighty Hudson. Here's a shot of it, right at the spot where American revolutionaries stretched a big iron chain across the river to keep British ships from going upriver. There were several places up and down the Hudson where this tactic was used in 1776, including at West Point. This picture is where Ft. Montgomery was located, and apparently the mighty chain obstacle worked pretty well.


  1. This is just extraordinary! I have never seen his work and I was taken with it immediately. How tragic the way he passed. But he left behind a treasure for us all! Thank you for passing this along! Nicole xo

  2. Hi Laurrie, if you are the same gardener who had a blog including experience with a dappled willow, please let me know. If need help with this shrub.


    1. Yes, that is my post about dappled willows.