“Tear down the fence,” say nearly 540 people who have signed a petition demanding that Opus 40, Inc., which maintains Harvey Fite’s iconic sculpture, take down a temporary chain-link fence that separates the sculpture from the home built by Fite himself. Erected in early June by the not-for-profit, the fence has fueled the fire of an ongoing conflict between the organization, which operates the iconic bluestone sculpture park; Fite’s descendants, who own the home adjacent; and some of the site’s biggest fans and longtime volunteers. An online petition posted by “Friends of Opus 40” on Change.org demands that the fence be taken down.
“The Board of Directors of Opus 40, Inc., have chosen to defile the memory of Harvey Fite and vandalize the artistic and organic integrity of his great work by slashing it down the middle with a fence,” the petition said. “What is now presented to the public is not Harvey Fite’s Opus 40.”
The petition was created by Gerry Pallor, who spent nearly 40 years volunteering at Opus 40. He said that he wasn’t asked to do anything more after Fite’s stepson, Tad Richards, stepped back from the not-for-profit a few years back and a paid executive director was brought in to oversee the organization, founded by the sculptor’s late wife, Barbara Fite. Since then, the only times Pallor has visited Opus 40 is as a paying guest. Plans are being formulated for hosting a demonstration protesting the fence, which could be held as soon as July 30, he said.
The not-for-profit claims that the fence is necessary to avoid liability related to potential falls from people trespassing on the sculpture at night. Fite’s step-great-grandson, Arick Manocha, who does not live full-time at the home, hosted a pair of events at the Fite House back in May, before a cease-and-desist order was issued that month by the town Building Department in response to complaints of late-night noise from neighbors and from the not-for-profit of people venturing out on the sculpture after hours.
Manocha said that he has not held a public event since the cease-and-desist order was issued. He has stopped booking rentals at Fite House on both AirBnB and HipCamp, and the family has also made the choice to sell the home. “It was our hope to create a partnership with Opus 40, Inc. to keep this home in our family, but that is no longer a possibility,” he said.
Previous plans have called for the not-for-profit to purchase the home and reunite the site, possibly for use as a museum complementing the sculpture, but they have not come to fruition.
Pallor said that he has watched friction between Opus 40, Inc. and Fite’s heirs, the Richards/Manocha family, grow in recent years. Now he can’t fathom how awful the fence is. “I was very upset. It was done in haste, and it was ill-considered.”
Pallor said that he’s trying to be diplomatic between a not-for-profit that he loves and a family he has counted as close friends for decades. There must be a better way to solve the problem than a fence, he said. “The fence runs right over Barbara’s and Harvey’s grave and their headstones and cuts them off from the sculpture.”
According to Pallor, more than 300 people have joined a Facebook group he created called Friends of Opus 40. “There are people asking questions about what’s going on,” he said. “Most see how self-evident it is. It’s disrespectful and insensitive.”
The whole situation has been very difficult for Fite’s stepson, Tad Richards, who has been undergoing treatment for throat cancer and is now in his 80s. Richards initially just wanted to stay out of the public eye and avoid the controversy over the fence, Pallor said. That has changed as time has gone on. “Now I can’t stop him. He sees how much support he has in his family and in the community.”
Pallor recalled when he met Richards back in the 1970s, when they were both teaching as adjuncts at SUNY New Paltz. Later, after Richards’ mother Barbara Fite died in the late 1980s, the not-for-profit was looking for volunteers. “Barbara separated the two entities as a way to provide a home for her family and preserve the Opus 40 artwork,” he said. “Tad took over running Opus 40. At that time, I was not familiar with how things worked.”
While acknowledging that Harvey Fite’s death was caused by a piece of heavy equipment overturning while the sculptor was maintaining the Opus 40 grounds, Pallor argued that the danger alleged by the not-for-profit is overstated, saying that he couldn’t recall a single serious injury in his years volunteering there. His duties included serving as a monitor who’d warn kids not to run across the sculpture, as well as physical labor on the sculpture including repairing a wall. “I got my fair share of scrapes,” he said.
A former videographer who covered many iconic sports events in years past, such as the US Open tennis major and New York City Marathon, Pallor said that he also produced videos for the not-for-profit, promoting the site and seeking to grow donations in the past when storms damaged the sculpture.
According to Pallor, the family has been looking to sell the home to Opus 40, Inc. for years, but they never received the right offer. “It wasn’t adequate, and the Richardses turned it down,” he said.
In building the fence, Pallor said, the not-for-profit has stuck its hands in a hornet’s nest: “They should have not gotten involved and done something so outrageous and disrespectful.” He said he hopes this dispute doesn’t do long-term damage to Opus 40, Inc., which recently stated in a prepared media statement that it has submitted a proposal to the National Park Service for a $600,000 multi-year grant to repair and preserve the sculpture for future generations. However, he added, “I know we’re not going away until the fence goes away.”
Phones have been ringing constantly at the town Historic Review Commission, which says that it is examining the “appropriateness” of the six-foot-tall temporary chain-link fence with regard to its guidelines for locally listed historic sites. Opus 40 is on both the local and national historical registers.
Stefan Yarabek, the commission’s co-chair, said the calls from the public have been overwhelmingly in opposition to the fence. A landscape architect by trade, Yarabek said that the fence caught the commission’s members off-guard, as they typically want to examine the appropriateness of installations like fences on properties on historic registers. He agrees that he does not view a six-foot-tall chain-link fence as the best solution for security at the site, and said that he wants to work with Opus 40 on better solutions.
According to Yarabek, the fence is jarring and breaks the continuity of the site when Fite created the sculpture. “It affects the historical integrity,” he said, adding that the commission is open to working with Opus 40, Inc. on longer-term solutions that limit liability while also being more sensitive to the unique setting. He also noted that the commission is not a code-enforcement or lawmaking body and can only make a recommendation to the Town Board.
Town of Saugerties building inspector Alvah Weeks admitted that there’s not much he can do about the fence either, since the town does not have a fence ordinance and state building codes have no regulations for fences. Upon hearing ongoing complaints about camping from Opus 40, Inc., Weeks said, he drafted a letter to Manocha clarifying what falls under the cease-and-desist order. “We got a complaint from the non-profit’s website stating he had campers,” he said.
Weeks admitted that he can’t verify whether the pictures or posts were from before or after the cease-and-desist order. He said that he received letters opposed to events and camping at the Fite House from everyone within a mile of the site.
The building inspector said that he recently wrote a letter to Manocha stating that he can no longer offer camping as a business without first going through the Planning Board. “It’s the same for one campsite or 50 campsites,” he said.
As for short-term rentals at the Fite House, Weeks said that issue goes far beyond the building itself. The town is getting inundated with short-term rentals (STRs), he said. “People have beautiful homes and people want to profit on that.” However, Weeks said, even renting out an RV in the backyard counts as a campsite and has to go through Planning Board approval unless it’s just family members staying there. At a recent Town Board meeting, numerous speakers complained of late-night noise and rowdy partygoers at STRs and pleaded for a noise ordinance.
For its part, the Opus 40, Inc. said in a prepared statement that the rationale for the erection of the fence comes down to liabilities, and with the two properties separately run, its board had to make “difficult decisions including the erection of a temporary safety fence.” The temporary fence was installed after a consultation with a site safety lawyer, the New York State Council on Nonprofits and insurers, Opus 40, Inc. said.
“This decision is a result of unsafe programs hosted by Fite House, which have introduced to the site AirBnB guests, late-night event attendees and campers who repeatedly encroached upon Opus 40 property and visited the main sculpture after closing,” the statement said. “Some Fite House events, as recently as July 10, continue into the early hours of the morning, garnering complaints from neighbors, many of whom erroneously thought that the events were sponsored by Opus 40. Camping near the Opus 40 sculpture has continued despite a cease-and-desist order from the Town of Saugerties.”
“The last thing Opus 40 wants is to disrupt the landscaping of our beautiful site,” the statement continued. “This decision was reluctantly made in order to allow Opus 40 to remain open and protected.”
Opus 40 also said that it will only remove the fence when “there is an appropriate and binding safety, programming and management plan for Fite House that is agreed upon by the owners and operators of Fite House, Opus 40, Inc. and the Town of Saugerties.” The not-for-profit reiterated its interest in buying Fite House, a move that it said is supported by a coalition of neighborhood residents.
Manocha said that he’d also like to see his great-grandfather’s earthwork sculpture and home reunited in the future. “Despite our differences, we believe what’s best for Opus 40 in the long term is that it be unified into one property, and we will entertain offers from Opus 40, Inc. should they be made,” he said. “If not, we hope to find a buyer that can successfully build a relationship with Opus 40, Inc.”