[Scpg] Forestiere Underground Gardens Fresno an amazing Site

Wesley Roe and Marjorie Lakin Erickson lakinroe at silcom.com
Wed Jun 25 07:28:30 PDT 2003

Forestiere Underground Gardens (1906-1946)
5021 W. Shaw Avenue
Baldasare Forestiere, designer and builder
Vernacular Subterranean


The Forestiere Underground Gardens is located on Shaw Avenue in north 
Fresno, a short distance east of Highway 99. It is a complex of underground 
caverns, grottos, patios and garden courts encircling the underground home 
of Baldasare Forestiere. The various sections are inter-connected with 
underground passageways and promenades together with an auto tunnel 
approximately 800 feet long that winds through the gardens. These 
passageways are embellished with planters of various shapes and sizes, many 
with built-in recessed seats of hardpan, mortar and cement. There are 
columns, arches and domes of hardpan--a native sedimentary stone that is 
pervasive in the area. Some ceilings are vaulted and carved like inverted 
tea cups. Others have skylights adorned with redwood arbors and pergolas 
with cascading grapevines. Over his living areas, Forestiere built 
skylights that were covered in the winter with glass to keep out the rain, 
yet allow in natural light.

To support the great mass of earth and to give permanence to his earthen 
sculptings, Forestiere used Roman arches, columns and domes. Hardpan, 
mortar and cement are used not only for structural purposes, but also for 
textural variety and beautification.

A wide variety of trees were planted throughout the gardens, some of them 
rare. Some of the trees are planted as deep as 22 feet below ground level. 
Many citrus trees were grafted with a variety of citrus, one tree having 
some seven different varieties. Varieties that Forestiere planted include 
Almond, Pomegranate, Italian Pear, Bartlett Pear, Olive, Persimmon, 
Avocado, Loquat, Quince, Carob, Jujube, Arbutus, Black Fig, Tangerine, 
Grapefruit, Orange, Kumquat, Lemon, Date Palm and Mulberry.

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. On ground level there was a small lake, which has subsequently 
been filled in for a parking lot.

Historical significance

The Forestiere Underground Gardens were designed and hand-sculpted by 
Baldasare Forestiere, a Sicilian immigrant. A vineyardist and 
horticulturalist, Forestiere began in the early 1900s to carve and sculpt a 
thoroughly unique underground retreat to escape the San Joaquin Valley's 
excessive heat. After nearly forty years with hand tools and persistent 
effort, he succeeded in creating a cool subterranean complex fashioned 
after the "visions stored in my mind." Forestiere worked without blueprints 
or plans, following only his creative instincts and aesthetic impulses. He 
continued expanding and modifying the gardens throughout his life. He died 
in 1946 at the age of sixty-seven. After his death, the Underground Gardens 
were opened to the public as a museum.

Adapted from the National Register of Historic Places nomination, 
originally prepared by Lorraine Faulks Forestiere.

For further information regarding public tours of the Underground Gardens, 
please call 559-271-0734.

Baldasare Forestiere came to the U.S. in 1901 at the age of 22 and found 
work digging the subway in Boston and then a tunnel connecting NYC and NJ. 
In 1908, he went west and arrived in Fresno where he purchased 70 acres of 
land at a great price without seeing it first. He thought he was buying 
farm land, but it turned out the land only had an inch or two of topsoil 
over hardpan ­ basically rock-like soil which was useless for growing 
things. He began work as a contractor, in charge of planting grape fields 
for surrounding farms. To beat the heat, he started to digging his own 
underground tunnel and created a 4 room apartment. He found fertile soil 
below the hardpan and, mixing it with soil from ancient lakebeds 75 miles 
away, started building a garden.

He used the hardpan as a roof, cutting circular holes in it for ventilation 
and creating light and rain for the garden. By the time he died in 1946 
(age of 67), after 38 years of building alone, he had constructed more than 
90 underground rooms and 10 acres of patios, courts, archways and grottoes. 
Engineers marvel at how this small man (5’4”), who never learned to read or 
write, built this place with only a pick, shovel and wheelbarrow.

Paths meander through nearly 7 acres of underground rooms and gardens 10-25 
feet below the surface. Citrus trees, some grafted to grow up to 7 
varieties of fruit, grow from pots carved in the underground chambers 
through holes in the hardpan roof. Above ground you can pick fruit from the 
treetops. The son of a fruit rancher, he knew about gardening and the 
grafting of fruit trees. Despite hundreds of varieties of plants, animals 
and insects are rarely seen. There are also elaborate drainage systems.

As Forestiere said, "to make something with lots of money that is easy ­ 
but to make something out of nothing
 now that is something." He was also 
driven by unrequited love as was Ed Leeskalnin (Coral Castle) . After the 
initial building of the underground house, Forestiere went back to Italy to 
ask his childhood sweetheart to come to America but she refused. He then 
went back to building with a vengeance.

By 1923, when he had completed 50 rooms and an 800’ long underground 
roadway for cars, Forestiere had to mortgage the property to keep up his 
work. But in 1931, the mortgagees foreclosed and he was forced to open his 
caves to the public to raise funds. At the time of his death he was working 
on a ballroom and an underground lake. He had excavated and floored the 
3500 square foot ballroom with composite stone and covered it with a large 
wooden roof.

The lake is a small one with a circular room only 10’ in diameter with a 
hole in the roof to let in light and another hole about 4’ wide in the 
middle of the floor. Below is a small bell-shaped chamber with ledges on 
which to sit. The idea was to cover the hole in the roof with a sheet of 
glass then fill the room above with water to make a shallow pond. You could 
then sit in the chamber below and watch fish above (like an aquarium in the 
ceiling. Some people speculate that he was building an underground resort 
(evidence of a possible restaurant and parking lot), others think maybe a 
bomb shelter.

The current owners of the house, Forestiere’s nephew and wife, haven’t got 
the money to finish the construction. Although the remaining 4½ acre site 
is an historical landmark, a lawsuit has dragged on for years keeping the 
Gardens closed to visitors and depriving the Forestieres of income. They 
have been offered nearly $2 million, but they refuse to sell. Parts of the 
garden have been destroyed because of highway expansion, as well as erosion 
and neglect. The family still talks optimistically of completing about 15 
rooms and reopening the place to tourists.

UPDATE: Recently, the site has been reopened for tours and used for 
weddings, business meetings, parties and small concerts.

   Forestiere Gardens 

It is hard to believe that amidst Fresno’s fast food signs, beneath the hot 
surface of the San Joaquin Valley is an underground paradise of lush fruit 
and vegetable trees that reach through skylights from 10-12 feet below the 
ground. They were the brainchild of Baldasare Forestiere.

Forestiere, an Italian immigrant, found the Central Valley heat hard to 
take when he came here to farm at the turn of the century. The Gardens 
began as a wine cellar in 1906 and developed into an underground retreat. 
Forestiere used hand tools and kept digging until his death in 1946.

Forestiere’s family hopes to one day make his rooftop garden as beautiful 
as his underground complex. These gardens are certainly a living testimony 
to one man’s vision.

Visitors can tour through the labyrinth-like hideaway of Forestiere 
Gardens. Tours are available on the weekends during the winter and 
Wednesday-Sunday during the summer months. For more information, call (559) 

Santa Barbara Permaculture Network
(805) 962-2571
sbpcnet at silcom.com


"We are like trees, we must create new leaves, in new directions, in order 
to grow." - Anonymous

>May no bomb fall on your head
>or on your child's head or on your enemy's head
>or on his child's head
>or on the snail
>in his garden.

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