A Dream Built Underground

By BRIAN COVERT for Breakaway

Dreams have come and dreams have gone. But one man’s dream of true personal freedom still stands today as a magnificent state landmark — deep in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

Forestiere Underground Gardens, located on Shaw Avenue just two blocks east of Highway 99 in Fresno, are the brainchild of an Italian immigrant, the late Baldasare Forestiere (1879-1946), who came to the United States around the turn of the century and later moved to Fresno in search of true independence.

The Underground Gardens are a network of rooms, patios and passageways built completely below the earth's surface.

The gardens also include an “Underground Garden Home” which consists of a living room, kitchen, library, two bedrooms and a bathroom, all of which Forestiere actually lived in while he was creating his architectural wonder.

In addition, there is an “Auto Tunnel” that spans the length of the gardens (about 700 feet long), a chapel and chapel garden, various arches and stonework patterned after the catacombs of ancient Rome, and an array of unique multi-grafted fruit trees and plants adorning the gardens.

The plants and trees are allowed sufficient sunlight by holes carved in the earth's surface, while the various hallways are architecturally designed to circulate air inside the rooms without the use of modern technology.

But the most amazing part is that the gardens were excavated only by simple hand tools and a lot of creative imagination on the part of Forestiere himself.

The legend of Baldasare Forestiere (pronounced “forest-tee-air”) reveals a lot about how the gardens came to be: Born in Sicily, the son of wealthy parents, Forestiere found in his youth his love for true personal freedom.

At age 21, he left his family (and an inheritance to the family fortune) behind in the old country and moved to the United States. “The Land of the Free,” as he had heard.

He was soon greeted by the harsh reality of working hard, long hours for meager pay as he found a job helping to tunnel an underground subway-like system in New Jersey. He gained valuable experience, but still paid a price in the loss of some personal freedom. So he moved out west to California.

Around 1904, he settled in Orange County (“God’s Country,” as he called it) to purchase some land for a future home. But skyrocketing real estate prices soon led him to move up north to Fresno, where he invested in some affordable land.

Again he was to be confronted with a major obstacle: the land was extremely dry and rocky and not suitable for farming. Hardpan, as it was known in the Valley.

But, as the legend goes, he made the best of the situation. Using the gifts of imagination, intuition and experience, he began his undertaking, which took more than 40 years of planning, digging, packing and sculpturing. Even today, its ingenuity surprises top architects and engineers.

“It takes no genius to make a straight line,” he was known to have once remarked. “Tie a string to the nose of a jackass (donkey) — and let him walk away. You and the jackass have made a straight line. But to make something crooked and beautiful...that is a wonderful thing!”

Forestiere designed the gardens to accommodate various changes in the climate of the San Joaquin Valley. During the summer months, as the rest of the Valley baked under the relentless sun, Forestiere kept cool in his underground residence. In the rainy months he kept dry by devising a unique drainage system.

Forestiere, throughout the building of the gardens, remained somewhat of a philosophical man. He believed in a “trinity” of truth, beauty and goodness, and he included those ideals throughout the garden’s architectural design.

Yet he was always amazed when visitors came to his underground home and were completely unaware that they were standing amidst the trinities. “They see, but they don’t see,” he would say.

Today, about 7 acres of Forestiere’s initial 20 acres of land remain; about 4½ are open to the public.

Without the aid of government loans or grants, the Underground Gardens are maintained and kept open strictly by admission fees ($4 adults, $3 teen-agers, $2 children), and hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

The spirit of the gardens has been kept refreshingly alive through the persistence of Ricardo Forestiere (nephew of Baldasare) and his wife, Lorraine, and their six children. Rick and Lorraine have dedicated themselves to keeping alive the dream of the elder Forestiere, despite the fact that the gardens lie on prime developing land.

“It (the gardens) shows what man can do with just his mind and his hands,” said Lorraine.

“Even when children come through, it shows them what they can do. Because nowadays we have machines, computers and all that, and we’re forgetting what man can do.”

Lorraine said the gardens are an example of how people can survive even when the going gets extremely tough.

“If they ever get stuck halfway across the world and they can’t buy food, they know they can survive,” she says.

“Even with their own mind and hands, they can survive. These are important concepts to keep.”

An article by Valley writer C.E. Good in 1923 summed up well the values Baldasare kept in mind while building his subterranean dwelling: “Money, he does not crave beyond enough to bring his plans to completion. Servitude, except to himself, he decries.”

Indeed, more than 50 years after those words were written, the Forestiere Underground Gardens still stand as a true tribute: a tribute to individual freedom and mankind’s ability to create.