After arriving in Fresno, California, Forestiere purchased 80 acres of land that he later found to be unsuitable for farming due to the presence of many inches of hardpan just below the meager topsoil. He discovered that a layer of mostly impermeable clay was found about 10 feet below the hardpan, so he decided to begin digging to open up underground rooms with circular holes above to allow a variety of plants to take root in large planters. He also realized that by going underground he could escape the brutal heat of Fresno’s summers and avoid spending his few day-job earnings on conventional housing.
Though his later building ideas may have been affected by his very first job in America—helping to dig some of Boston’s earliest subway tunnels—Forestiere patterned his underground world after the ancient catacombs, which he so admired as a boy. Arches and passageways dominate the underground landscape, while the stonework (crafted from chunks of the excavated hardpan) provides stability and beauty. But unlike the darkness of the Old World’s catacombs, Forestiere designed naturally lit courtyards, driveways, even a glass-bottomed aquarium (now not in use) below which he could sit and read. No plans were put on paper; each room and passageway originated in Forestiere’s mind as he went. With the simple tools of a farmer—a pick, a shovel, a wheelbarrow, a dragged scraper, and eventually two mules—the determined immigrant dug, chipped, and carved his personal monument to ingenuity for 40 years in his spare time. By the time he was 44 years old, he had excavated and planted over 10 acres.
Fresno’s Forestiere Underground Gardens are one of California’s most beautiful feats of historical environmental design. Built by Sicilian immigrant Baldasare Forestiere over 40 years of his life, the subterranean gardens are fed with skylights and catch basins. Working totally on impulse, Forestiere designed the retreat without blueprints or plans – and his only tools were a pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow.
Forestiere Underground Gardens are a must see for anyone who is interested in architecture, unusual gardens, and unique road trips. The surrounding Fresno area gives no hint as to what’s beneath the fenced in an overgrown lot off the freeway. As you make your way beneath the earth’s surface into the tunnels and rooms, you are transported to another country, with its Mediterranean and Old World charm and feel. The ballroom is simply amazing with its stained glass basement windows, terrazzo marbled floors, wrought iron work, and washed aqua-green beamed ceiling.
The guided tour is lead by Baldasare Forestiere‘s younger brother’s great grandson, Andre Forestiere, who is very polite, welcoming, and informative. The tour is very informal and relaxing. Andre enthusiastically tells the story of Baldasare Forestiere and the creation of his gardens, and reveals Baldasare’s personal meanings and artistic expressions behind specific planters, rooms, and so on. He raises questions about the auto drive and why the cellar was built next to it. He points out and gives background into other family member’s contributions and additions over the years to the gardens, such as the ballroom and aesthetically pleasing arbors built over the skylights. Using a bit of humor, Andre gives hints and glimpses into what he has in store for the gardens in the upcoming years. Unlike other tours, Andre actually encourages the touching of walls and rock/brick work.
Forestiere began building the underground arboretum in 1906 when he bought land near Fresno that he thought was fertile, but soon discovered it was hardpan. Seeking to escape the scorching heat of the San Joaquin Valley, he was inspired to seek refuge underground, where he found that the soil was actually fertile for growing plants. Over the course of the next 40 years until his death, he carefully carved 10,000 square feet of subterranean bedrooms, living rooms, a kitchen, a chapel, a fish pond, and a network of gardens, trees and trellises all by hand- and without architectural training.
The underground caverns are supported by Roman arches, columns, and domes. Forestiere capped many of the domes with grated skylights that let light in to the living areas and gardens below. Forestiere planted a variety of trees 10 to 25 feet below the earth’s surface – their tops poke through the skylights, offering fruit to passersby. The underground garden is rich with Almond, Pomegranate, Pear, Olive, Persimmon, Avocado, Loquat, Quince, Carob, Jujube, Arbutus, Black Fig, Tangerine, Grapefruit, Orange, Kumquat, Lemon, Date Palm and Mulbery trees. Forestiere, the son of a citrus farmer, even grafted one tree to produce seven varieties of citrus fruit!
Growing underground, the trees and plants are protected from hot weather in the summer, frost in the winter, and animals and insects all year-round. The trees are watered with rainwater collected in large bins. Wine grapes dangle from overhead trellises, also reachable from the surface.
Forestiere, who could not read or write in English, created the idyllic garden by himself, using only his experience as a Boston subway digger, and gardening knowledge from his upbringing to create his own personal Garden of Eden. The gardens are maintained to this day by Baldasare’s nephew Ric and his family members.
Still there, still wonderful. We’ve driven by a million times whenever we’re in Fresno, but finally were able to stop in while they’re open. Marvelous.
This project is clearly a labor of love. There is nothing slick or too-polished about the tour or the grounds. They will not pester you to buy stuff after the tour, and the nephew’s wife and their son will be the ones leading you around. I am sure there are few questions they haven’t heard, but you’d never know that by the gracious way they answer each and every one.
Go a couple of times — your admission is good for a year, they told me — once for the tour, and once with a nice book. On that second trip, return to that nice spot you found on your first trip, enjoy the currents and cross-currents designed by Baldasare, the lovely scents borne on those breezes, and let your mind wander a bit. You may not get much of your book read, but you will have your soul refreshed.
We plan to make this a stop whenever we’re in Fresno.