While at our stopover in Fresno, California, I learned about Forestiere Underground Gardens from my California AAA TourBook. It's a gotta go to.
Sicilian immigrant, Baldassare Forestiere, took over 40 years to create this underground retreat by hand, starting in the early 1900's. Subterranean rooms, passageways, gardens, patios, and courtyards with fruit trees are connected by tunnels and lit by skylights. The underground complex also contains Forestiere's home and his chapel. Baldassare Forestiere was a self-taught artist, architect, engineer, horticulturist, and builder who was the ingenious creator and builder of 10 acres of an underground oasis - a large maze of rooms and passageways that he patterned after the ancient catacombs of Rome. Forestiere, (Born July 8, 1879 in Messina, Sicily; died November 10, 1946, Fresno, California), came to America in 1901 to become a citrus farmer. He started out in Boston when he first arrived, digging subway tunnels for a living. He then moved to Fresno, California, where land was cheaper. He bought 80 acres in the winter of 1905. He built a house and had a well spring and was ready to farm in 1906. When he went to dig his first tree, his shovel wouldn't go into the ground. He discovered hard panrock sediment from rains from the mountains. Forestiere essentially bought 80 acres of rock 2-4 feet deep, underneath of which was good soil. With his visions of building a citrus empire pretty much crushed, Forestiere spent the next 40 years of his life carving out the useless farmland he had purchased into a habitable underground oasis adorned with luscious fruit trees and grapevines that he planted underground. In 1906, Forestiere combined his knowledge of farming with his observations of the Roman architecture of the Mediterranean and hired himself out as a laborer, digging trenches. No dynamite was used. No plans were made. Every bit of this area was hand-excavated from worthless farmland into a spectacular maze of underground caverns. "The visions of my mind overwhelm me." Forestiere worked a full time job, came home in the evening and started digging, night after night after night. Forestiere, then 22 years old, came to America after a bitter argument with his father to fulfill his dreams of independence and good fortune as a fruit merchant. He quickly discovered the land he'd bought for growing fruit trees was worthless. Another surprise that hit Forestiere was the staggering summer temperatures of Fresno, which routinely reached 115-120 degrees everyday. He desperately needed a way to escape the crushing heat from his home and wood burning stove. He needed to get cool. He remembered the coolness of the underground cellars where he grew up and decided to go underground and excavate a cellar on his land where he could cool off during the hottest parts of the day. Forestiere worked on the hard pan with a pick ax and chipped away. It was so effective in giving him relief from the heat that he carved a few more rooms. While others in Fresno were baking inside their stifling houses built above ground, Forestiere enjoyed the air-conditioned privacy of his novel underground resort and hideaway. People heard about Forestiere and finally a reporter came out. Forestiere took the reporter on a tour in 1923. He had already excavated about 10 acres underground in his first seventeen years. Fifty rooms by hand. While working his day job - digging ditches. Forestiere worked another 23 years on his project until 1946. For forty years, Forestiere labored in his spare time, chipping and carving away at the unforgiving earth - hardpan, then clay, and finally sand and silt. He used basic farmer's tools - picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, and a relatively new tool, a Fresno scraper, which was pulled by his two mules, Dolly and Molly. Then Forestiere had an idea - could he get a tree to grow underground. The answer was a resounding YES. He began to experiment. He built planters from the hardpan chunks he'd dug out and filled it with amended soil. He cut out a skylight above and then planted the tree. With just the right amount of sunlight, water, and care his tree, protected from the frost, would flourish. At age 46, Forestiere was hospitalized for a hernia, got pneumonia, and died. He was unmarried and had no children. Sadly, at his death, 10 acres with 50 rooms were sold off and filled in. At that point, his younger brother Guiseppi stepped in to intervene and preserve Forestiere's work. I believe only five acres are left, which are owned by Guisippe's family. The third generation owns and operates the Underground Gardens and the fourth generation is working on it. As you visit Baldassare Forestiere's underground world through my paltry photographs, know it was patterned after the ancient catacombs of his native land. The Roman arches dominate the underground landscape while the stonework, made from dug up hardpan and mixed with homemade mortar made up the walls and arches The arches were made from handmade forms and provide stability and beauty. Unlike the dark catacombs of his homeland, Forestiere's underground retreat features well-lit courtyards and grottos to bring forth the radiance and vitality of life. His cool underground lifestyle included a parlor with fireplace, both a summer and winter bedroom, a courtyard with a bath and a fish pond, and a kitchen with all the conveniences of his time. Forestiere's handiwork proclaims his love for life, nature, and God. To make something with lots of money, that is easy. But to make something out of nothing -- that now, is something. Baldassare Forestiere.
We came upon an unassuming area on a main street in Fresno. And there were the gardens. You don't see them at first, but all of a sudden, there they are.
The Red Hats are among us!
Baldassare Forestiere was an ingenious creator and builder of a large maze of underground rooms and passageways (from 1904 - 1946) patterned after the ancient catacombs, and which can still be toured today in Fresno, California. A young Sicilian immigrant with no formal education, he came to American in the early 1900s to build a citrus empire. Instead, he spent the next 40 years of his life carving out the useless farmland he had purchased for such into a habitable underground oasis adorned with luscious fruit trees and grapevines that he planted underground. Starting in 1906 Baldassare Forestiere combined his knowledge of farming with his observations of the Roman architecture of the Mediterranean to hand-excavate worthless farmland into a spectacular maze of underground rooms. No dynamite was used, no blueprints were made; every idea originated in Forestiere's head as he went. By 1923 he had carved out over 10 acres of connecting tunnels, rooms, patios, and grottos and a simple earthen home that sheltered him from the objectionable Fresno heat.
The Fruits Of His Labors Every tree he planted would bear fruit: oranges, lemons, grapefruits (several kinds on a single tree), as well as more unusual varieties like kumquat, loquat, jujube, strawberry, quince, and dates which could be easily plucked from the surface by simply by simply bending down. Several varieties of wine and table grapes also graced his oasis and dangled lusciously in great clumps above and below ground. Family, friends, and curiosity-seekers marveled at the volume and beauty of the fruit of Forestiere's labors. This fiercely independent immigrant had found a way to defeat the heat and force the brick-like land to be productive.
Forestiere Underground Gardens Here, beneath the hot, arid surface of the San Joaquin Valley, Baldassare Forestiere (1879 -1946) began in the early 1900's to sculpt a fantastic retreat. Excavating the hardpan by hand, he create a unique complex of underground rooms, passages, and gardens which ramble throughout a ten-acre parcel. His work is being preserved as a living monument to a creative and individualistic spirit unbounded by conventionality.
The Fresno Bee March 23, 1923 Resort Underground Visitors Banned From Unique Caverns Driveway, Fifty Rooms By C. E. Good Baldasare Forestiere is a dreamer. He has worked with pick and shovel for the past fifteen years to bring into being a dream that he says will not be completed for another four years at least. Of twenty-two years spent in this country since coming from Italy, Ferestiere has been fifteen years within a few miles of Fresno, excavating what he plans shall be a subterranean garden and resort unequaled in the world. Working alone during his spare time, while cultivating more than seventy acres of surface area, Forestiere has excavated fifty rooms below ground and what seem to be miles of tunnels connecting these rooms, which are on several levels. Ban On Visitors Cherishing his work for its own interest, the driver under the earth begrudges every moment he spares to the curious. He has placed an unalterable ban on visitors until such a time as he is ready to open his workings to the public. "That time will be late in the summer, when the already roughed-out portion can be better finished." Each of the fifty rooms completed has a separate skylight over which will be placed an arbor of either grapes or fruit trees, so trained that fruit will hang over the opening. Auto Driveway The single piece of work of the greatest magnitude yet accomplished is a driveway for automobiles along which are deep niches in the walls for parking cars. This driveway when completed will extend from one end of the workings to the other and will provide a means whereby the visitor can enter in his automobile and not be obliged to touch the ground until such a time as the car is in the cool recesses of the cavern. No Idea Repeated Variety and originality of design are the predominating impressions left in the mind of the sightseer. In no two of the reception rooms is an idea repeated. In no place does the working out of the idea of the builder reach the monotonous. A fertile mind filled with ideas is expressed in every turn of the twisting tunnels. The man who has dreamed this dream and worked a large portion of it into fulfillment is an unusual person. His life history would be acceptable as a story of the strivings of an emigrant boy to an ideal. Money, he does not crave beyond enough to bring his plans to completion. Servitude, except to himself, he decries. Lover Of Liberty Forestiere left Italy when he was 21 years old because his father, a wealthy man, wanted to control the fortunes of his family and wanted to rule them with a stern hand. Forestiere wanted liberty. He came to this country and went to work as a tunneler under the city of Boston. He also aided in building the great Croton Aqueduct and the subway from New York to Jersey. Here, he says, his hopes of freedom and easy wealth were nearly blasted. He began to realize that in the world of the driver for wares, there is no freedom. He came to this valley. First he located near Muscatel. Here he dug a deep cellar to protect himself from the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter. Then he moved to his present place and duplicated his cellar residence. Subterranean Retreat Later, as the urge to dig the earth became greater, he began to think that the residents of Fresno and vicinity would relish a cool subterranean retreat from the heat of mid-summer. Then his work began. No plans were made. Every detail in the development of the underground gardens has originated in the brain of Forestiere and has never been set on paper. Gradually, he has evolved a comprehensive scheme that "will connect up into one of the most involved and yet delightful labyrinths of modern ages. Faced in many places with soft earth that caves in at the touch of the shovel, Forestiere has erected arches of hard sod without mortar, that have withstood the pressure of earth above for years. Where possible, the natural hardpan has provided a roof for the caverns. Vents or skylights, as yet uncovered, have not caused his place to be flooded in the rainy seasons. Every drop of water that strikes the floor goes on through in the lower earth without standing a moment. The earth floors are packed as hard and smooth in places as iron. Well With Caverns In one of the deeper caverns there is a well which has been dug as far as the water level and bored from there on. Near this well, also underground, is the gasoline engine that operated the pump and will provide a steady flow of water for an artificial lake with which it is planned the surface of a large part of the establishment will be adorned. Leading into the center of the lake will be a tunnel from the underground workings which willl allow visitors to ascent from the depths and enjoy boating and other aquatic sports. From Undergrounnd Digging into the earth is not the only accomplishment of Forestiere. He finds a great pleasure in controlling the natural output of the earth. In his caverns he has developed oranges and other citrus fruits to a remarkable degree. Some of the trees that provide the principal decoration for the reception rooms bear three varieties of fruit on separate branches. Oranges, lemons, and grapefruit, all perfect in form and flavor, hang on several trees in the workings. Here, the fruit hangs almost twice as long as on the surface. Frost never touches this region below the surface of the earth. Here the temperature very seldom changes over ten degrees the year around. Twenty Acres Twenty acres of ground will be honeycombed by the tunnels and rooms when the work is completed. At present more than half of that area has been mined. Among the many things planned and partially accomplished are: An automobile driveway and underground parking spaces, many small dining rooms to be served from a central kitchen, a ballroom, a small hotel with three floors, a subterranean lake and fish pond under which another room is located with the light to be furnished through the glass bottom of the lake, a surface lake, a series of architectural exhibits of grafting and other natures, numbers of reception rooms for parties and lounging room for those anxious to get away from the heat of the noonday sun. In researching (ie, Googling) the Underground Gardens, I found this:
There was a metal cistern at ground level which was heated by the sun, thus providing hot water for his bath.
Forestiere's holding pond. He would catch fish, bring them home, and hold them in this pond until he was ready to cook.
Forestiere planted multiple varieties of fruit-bearing plants at different underground levels. Oranges, lemons, grapefruits - many on a single tree - as well as other varieties like kumquat, loquat, jujube, strawberry, quince, dates, and multiple varieties of grapes grace this underground sanctuary.