By Associated Press Writer
updated 3/21/2010 1:30:57 PM ET 2010-03-21T17:30:57

Harvey Fite spent 37 years turning an abandoned bluestone quarry in the Catskill Mountains into a strange and striking landscape sculpture. Visitors to Opus 40 walk through rock-wall mazes that swirl around a 9-ton monolith looming in the center like a Stone Age exclamation mark.

Fite was still working on his multi-acre artwork when he died in 1976 at age 72. His family has kept the Woodstock-area attraction open to seasonal visitors and the occasional concert, but now they're trying to sell the land, and local officials are working with them to keep this novel Hudson Valley attraction open to the public.

Town of Saugerties supervisor Greg Helsmoortel said the small town can't afford to buy Opus 40, which has an asking price of $3.5 million. But Saugerties, which sits 100 miles north of New York City, is starting to work with arts and cultural groups to look at ways to keep it open.

"We want to keep it just like it is, maybe even a little more," Helsmoortel said.

Opus 40 is as much a testament to tenacity as art.

Fite started work in 1939 on what was essentially a slag heap. He hand-laid each stone — no mortar — over the next 37 years as he held a full-time job as an art professor at Bard College across the Hudson River. The walls that form curving channels were made up as he went along. Even the name, Opus 40, was chosen belatedly by Fite based on his calculation of how long it would take him to complete the project.

"All of this was basically improvised," Fite's stepson, Tad Richards, said as he stepped across the stones on a recent morning.

Fite banged away with the same sort of hammers and hand tools used by old Catskill quarrymen, though the 16-foot monolith in the middle likely owes its inspiration to far older artisans. Richards said Fite painstakingly raised the rock with winches and guy wires using techniques familiar to ancient Egyptians — although Fite's monolith was delivered by flatbed truck.

Fite was working on the project when he died on May 9, 1976. His riding mower apparently got stuck in gear at the lip of a channel, flipping Fite over the edge. The mower landed on Fite and he was killed instantly, Richards said.

The family runs Opus 40 as a not-for-profit site. While the work has attracted highbrow praise from art critics, it maintains a mom-and-pop feel. Richards and his wife, Pat, live on the site and do the work, helped by volunteers in the busy months. About 5,000 people a year drive up the little road to Opus 40 and pay admission. Kids can scurry through the channels, and the site has hosted concerts and weddings.

Richards and his wife have run Opus 40 since his mother died in 1987. Richards said they're getting older now and it's time to retire and move on.

"We're proud of what we've done here," Richards said. "But we're also amateurs."

A new owner would have to agree to keep it open to the public, he said, but he's not looking for the highest bidder.

Helsmoortel said he does not want the deal to involve town taxpayer money. But where money to buy Opus 40 would come from — be it a deep-pocketed preservation group or maybe the federal government — is not known. Town officials say they are in the early stages of sounding out cultural groups and government officials.

No one expects a quick resolution, and that seems fine by Richards. On a recent tour, he talked up the beauty of Opus 40 as he looked around at the stones, the woods and the mountain in the distance.

"Never get tired of it," he said. "Every time you lay eyes on it, it's fresh."

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