In the early 1900s, a Sicilian immigrant, citrus grower, and visionary turned a vast underground network of rooms, tunnels, and courtyards into a subterranean escape from the sweltering Central Valley summer heat.
The grueling hot summers of California’s Central Valley can lead a person to do some crazy ass things, I should know, I grew up there.
My friends and I hand dug small, dangerous, underground forts in the empty fields that surrounded our homes while growing up in a very rural section of northwest Bakersfield. Why? Because forts were cool and it was also a great way to escape the hellacious heat that bore down on us each summer.
Sicilian immigrant Baldasare Forestiere had the same idea in the early 1900’s after purchasing 80 acres of farm land in West Fresno, CA, except he took it to a whole nother level.
From 1906 to his death in 1946, the visionary builder, using only shovels, picks, and other hand tools, built 90 underground interconnected chambers spread out over 10 acres, in order to create his very own personal subterranean retreat from the valley’s soaring summer temperatures.
Considered a spectacular and unconventional example of vernacular architecture, Forestiere’s story and history has often been compared to Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, only instead of building up, Baldassare built down.
After his death at 67, one of his brother’s preserved a a smaller portion of his underground creations and opened it up for tours.
Each guided 60 minute tour explores approximately three acres of the remaining underground network and passes through 25-30 “rooms.” Our guide Latieshka was probably the nicest, sweetest, and most knowledgeable host I’ve ever encountered on a tour and I’ve taken lots of tours in my life.
Averaging 10 to 30 degrees cooler than the surface temperature outside, I felt instant relief after dropping down into Forestiere’s Underground Gardens when I visited back in August of 2017.
Tours begin in the underground ballroom, which Forestiere was still working on at the time of his death. He had excavated and floored the 3500 square foot ballroom with composite stone and covered it with a large wooden roof.
The Man, the myth, the legend himself, Baldasare Forestiere.
He was supposedly infatuated with the ancient Roman catacombs growing up and it’s easy to imagine yourself inside of them while touring the underground world he created.
Countless hours were spent excavating the hardpan layer that cements much of Fresno’s soil to create his underground paradise.
The gardens, while subterranean, have many skylights and catchbasins for water.
The plants and trees, some of which are over 100 years old, are protected, by virtue of construction, from the frost in the winter months.
Each level was planted at different times, so they bloom in succession, in order to lengthen the growing season.
The gardens contain a variety of fruit ranging from citrus and berries to exotic fruits like the kumquat, loquat, and jujube.
The conical skylights allow for the hot air to be pushed out more quickly and the cool air to remain below.
Just one of the many different varieties of citrus that can be found underground.
Trees and vines were also planted above the dwelling, acting as insulation and forming canopies that provide protection from the elements.
Table grapes, a shoe and a dog. Not sure why but cute nonetheless.
A religious man, Forestiere incorporated symbolic numbers as he planted.
The Holy Trinity appears in a courtyard with three citrus trees and a nearly 100-year old grapevine that sprouts in three different directions.
Another tree is grafted to bear seven different types of citrus, while Forestiere’s chapel has seven entrances.
The bell still hangs above the chapel to this day.
The pathways and rooms were constructed with various widths to help direct airflow by creating pressure as it moves through narrower portions and maintain movement as it bounces off the slants and curves of the cavernous walls.
He worked without blueprints or plans, following only his creative instincts and aesthetic impulses.
Baldassar’s winter bedroom was dug further into the ground which helped insulate him from the cold.
His summer bedroom had better circulation which allowed more air to flow through it, making it more comfortable during the sweltering months of summer.
One of the many arched breezeways leading out to his gardens.
A small fish pond, crossed by a foot bridge, was created in the garden court off the kitchen and bedrooms.
Also located in the gardens was an aquarium with a circular glass bottom through which tropical fish could be observed.
At one point, Baldassare decided he wanted a to build a resort on the land which required an underground access driveway. He dug the driveway but the resort never came to fruition.
Forestiere Underground Gardens is open for tours April through November, from 10 am to 4 pm, Wednesday’s through Sunday’s only. No tours are given during wet weather, so call ahead if the forecast calls for rain.
God bless Baldasare Forestiere.