The Underground Gardens are the life-long devotion and hobby of Baldassare Forestiere, a Sicilian immigrant and self-taught artist and builder who came to America in 1901 to escape the iron rule of his wealthy father and pursue his own dreams. The Gardens are a subterranean complex of patios, grottoes, and garden courts interconnected with passageways that encircle a four-room living quarters.
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.
But Forestiere’s genius did not stop there. Incredibly, Forestiere planted multiple varieties of fruit-bearing plants at different underground levels. Oranges, lemons, grapefruits—many on a single tree—as well as more unusual varieties like kumquat, loquat, jujube, strawberry, quince, and dates, which could be easily plucked while standing on the surface and simply bending down. Wine and table grapes also grace this sanctuary and dangle lusciously in great clumps everywhere—truly an oasis in a modern-day desert of pavement.