Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno
Jul 21, 2017 11:00AM
By Kimberly Horg
Story by Kimberly Horg
Photos courtesy of Forestiere Underground Gardens
An Italian immigrant who was trying to find a way to stay cool decided to build his home underground. In 1906, Baldassare Forestiere started to build living quarters, tunnels and garden courtyards in three different underground levels with nothing more than a hand pick, wheelbarrow, shovel and Fresno scraper pulled by his two mules.
Forestiere Underground Gardens is now an iconic historic landmark in Fresno. The Gardens have remained the same with the help of Forestiere’s nephew, Ric Forestiere, and his daughters, Valery Forestiere and Lyn Kosewski. Many locals and visitors alike take inspiration from his lifelong work that took 40 years to build. Touring the gardens in awe, wondering how he went about designing each room by hand, it is a must-see, one-of-a-kind landmark unique to the Fresno Valley.
He was a man before his time; the sustainable living quarters are not only functional, but Earth friendly. Because it is underground, the rooms are cooler during the hot summer months and warmer in the winter. The vines and trees planted above the rooms work as insulators against both the heat and cold. And the branches and vines function as a filter for the wet seasons as well as shade during the heat waves.
“One of the most appealing aspects of visiting the Underground Gardens this time of year is the temperature drop you feel as soon as you walk down the stairs and enter Baldassare’s world. The heat of Fresno was one of the major driving forces that led him to create his home underground; as the temperatures continue to rise at ground level, it is an enjoyable 65 to 80 degrees underground,” says Shera Rodrick, Forestiere Underground Gardens’ tour services manager.
To this day, visitors can witness his original landscape with some of the first fruit trees he planted more than a century ago. The Gardens inhabit 10 acres, but originally covered a much larger portion of land. It is unknown how far Forestiere built, because there were no blueprints of his plans. He built his creation with the plans he had only in his head.
Some say he was a genius, an artist, a farmer, sculptor, farmer, winemaker and a bit of a recluse. He never got married or had children; he lived completely alone with his inspirations. He did have visitors, though, and even made an underground peephole so he could see who was coming for a visit. In 1923, he told a reporter he carved 10 acres underground, but for the next 23 years (until his death), many believe he etched away many more miles of underground passages underneath Fresno. It is a mystery to know for sure how far he could have excavated back in the day, because it ultimately got filled during new construction.
“It was the free-spirited genius within that compelled him to sculpt such an astounding environment in the most unlikely of places. Unrestrained by conventional thinking, he was able to pursue his visions,” Ric Forestiere says.
Before moving to Fresno, Forestiere was a subway digger in Boston and New York and used those skills to build his dream home. He was also a Roman Catholic and used the biblically significant numbers three and seven while digging. The numbers can be seen throughout in planters and branches he combined in those numbers, as well as in rooms.
The Forestiere Underground Gardens are owned and operated by the Ric Forestiere family, who have been sharing their heritage with visitors for more than 40 years. Both of his great-nieces operate the tour business, and their father Ric owns the west half of the landmark site.
5021 W. Shaw Ave., Fresno
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