The Great Wall of China. The Berlin Wall. The Border Wall. Whether erected to keep someone in or out, the installation of an intrusive vertical obstruction tends to be representative of a breakdown in amicable relations between two parties.
So is the case at Opus 40, the sprawling bluestone sculpture in Saugerties, where the installation of a fence in early June followed an ongoing conflict between the non-profit that operates the sculpture park and the descendants of sculptor Harvey Fite, who own the home adjacent to it.
The issues center around the use of the “Fite House” for after-hours events and as a short-term rental property, which the non-profit says poses a danger to the sculpture (and to guests themselves) in the form of persons roaming the grounds at night.
Parties get neighbors’ attention
Presently, no one lives full-time in Fite House. Plans called for the house, like the sculpture, to eventually be purchased by the non-profit. In the meantime, the family has listed the house on Airbnb and holding events and tours, all organized by Fite great-grandson Arick Manocha, who lives elsewhere in Saugerties and is currently a candidate for the county legislature.
Manocha held two events at the house in May. He described the first as a fire spinning class hosted by insured professionals and the second as a small electronic dance music concert with local vendors that featured a fundraiser for the non-profit community organization ShoutOut Saugerties. He said alcohol wasn’t served at either event.
On May 21, he said he received a cease-and-desist order from the town building inspector after neighbors petitioned town officials with complaints of noise and light pollution coming from the vicinity of the home and Opus 40.
The topic also came up at a recent town board meeting, where several neighbors expressed similar concerns.
“I feel people are seeming like I’m throwing dozens of events,” Manocha said. “I’ve only had two events, May 6 and May 13 with no noise problems.”
Manocha said he dealt with complaints on a prompt basis and gave neighbors his cell phone number. He said he worked with an events company to put on the events and hired security to ensure no one wandered out into the sculpture area.
Manocha asserted he will no longer have ticketed events at the Fite House.
“I’m not disobeying the building inspector,” Manocha said. “From now on we’re focusing on tours and Airbnb,” he said.
The fence goes up
Opus 40, the 501(c)(3) non-profit that operates the sculpture, gallery and museum, subsequently erected a fence around the house.
An emailed statement from the nonprofit explains the move as follows: “Opus 40 had to make the painful decision to fence off our property to ensure that people did not continue to venture onto our sculpture, after- and before-hours, which is a tremendous safety hazard.”
According to the non-profit, it advised Fite House in writing multiple times about its concerns involved in camping and holding parties near the Opus 40 sculpture and the need to protect Opus 40 from being exposed to legal liabilities.
“We also repeatedly advised them that their guests were on the sculpture and our property after hours,” reads a statement. “However, the problem did not abate. It is our priority to preserve Harvey Fite’s masterwork while navigating its safety challenges for visitors. Regrettably, in the end, we were unable to avoid erecting a fence.”
Manocha says it didn’t have to be this way; the family and the nonprofit could have come to an agreement. He suggests the tensions predate the most recent events and have their roots in something else: The understanding that the nonprofit would purchase the house. Manocha said this just wasn’t happening quickly enough. So, to support his grandparents, Tad and Pat Richards, Manocha began to plan ways for the property to generate income. He said he tried to work with the nonprofit on this. Members seemed receptive, but no collaborations were planned. Then came the fence.
Manocha contends the fence goes against the tradition of people coming to Opus 40 with no property lines between the sculpture and Fite’s home.
“I grew up here, I got on the bus for my first day of school here,” he said. “People walked freely around my house, the main ramp to go to Opus 40 was not blocked. Our family doesn’t want this fence.”
He said the deterioration in the relationship between the family and Opus 40 has made his family feel the home, which has been in the family since 1939 and was where he grew up is being ripped away from them.
He said now his grandfather just wants to sell the home and move on.
“He can’t come anymore because the fence hurts him so much,” Manocha said.
Going ahead, Manocha said going ahead he simply wants to meet with OPUS 40, create clear lines of communications, find common ground and find a way to operate in a mutually beneficial way.
“We seek to create an environment at Fite House that will enhance and be inclusive of the local community, support local non-profits and initiatives, and create a safe space for various communities’ self-expression,” Manocha said. “I am ready and excited to come to the table to create common ground, and I hope moving forward that the board of OPUS 40 will understand that we are not trying to subvert their impressive efforts to maintain the incredible sculptural landscape my grandfather built. “We are instead seeking to keep the Fite House alive and find ways to work together.”
According to a statement from the nonprofit, it would consider removing the fence if certain conditions were met.
“Opus 40 will consider removing that fence, which it put up with great reluctance and at considerable expense, in the same way, that we make all safety decisions — based on recommendations from the town, our insurers, and safety/compliance advisors. Those decisions are based on considerations including but not limited to risk of trespass from nearby events and lodging options.”
The statement emphasized the dangers of the sculpture by mentioning that its creator died there while mowing the grass near the edge of a 12-foot dropoff. “Safety on this delicate site where Fite himself had his tragic accident will always a huge priority.”
The nonprofit still plans to purchase the house and reunite the site as “one fluid space, per the original intent” and to eventually develop the home as a workshop space, library and museum.