California’s Best Kept Secret: A Century-Old Subterranean Gardens
Fresno, California tends to be one of those cities that people are ‘just passing through’ on their way to see something else. But pass through too quickly and you’ll miss out on a little secret subterranean paradise…
More of an underground mansion, the Forestiere Gardens are a manmade creation of sprawling subterranean passageways, courtyards and living quarters– built by a single man.
Baldasare Forestiere (1879-1946) was a bit of a rebel. Sicilian-born to a wealthy father, by the age of 20, he’d had it with his controlling old man and upped sticks to America in 1901 to pursue his own future. He took jobs digging subway tunnels in New York and Boston to make ends meet until he decided to try his luck on the West Coast. Eventually settling in Fresno, California, Baldasare purchased 80 acres of land to make a life for himself as a farmer. The only problem was, the land wasn’t fit to be cultivated– at least not on the surface.
With just a wheelbarrow, a pick and a shovel, Forestiere began digging and digging, and digging some more. Ten feet below the dense layers of inarable soil, he discovered a layer of damp-proof clay. The discovery would be the start of a life-long devotion to building his elaborate subterranean world.
Forestiere built nearly 100 rooms, passageways and courtyards with circular holes above to allow a variety of plants and fruit-bearing trees to take root in large planters and protrude through the openings at ground level. Over a period of 40 years, he excavated oasis spans over 10 acres (all in his spare time).
From oranges and exotic fruits to century old vines of sweet purple wine grapes; all kinds of temptations ready to be plucked are dangled in front of you as discover the passageways and courtyards…
But of course this wasn’t just a subterranean garden but Forestiere’s home too. With the extra help of two donkeys (no dynamite or motorized mechanical methods were used), he carved out bedrooms, a kitchen, bathing area, living room and even his own personal chapel. Being underground also allowed him to escape the harsh California summer heat.
Forestiere had never had any formal education in architecture or engineering and yet, his arches, vaults and stone-built walls mimicked the sophisticated building techniques of the Ancient Romans. He didn’t even waste time with architectural planning on paper– the Italian just dug and dug and created his catacomb-like network of chambers as he went along.
Today, Forestiere’s descendants run a small operation under the Forestiere Historical Center, that opens up the extraordinary home to the public and offers guided tours as well as special extended sessions at sunset.