The Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno, CA
A Fresno Gem
If you should find yourself in the city of Fresno—perhaps on your way to Yosemite—one of the sites you'll definitely want to investigate is the Forestiere Underground Gardens.
Located on the outskirts of the city, bordering Highway 99, this tourist attraction has entertained visitors from all over the world. Tours generally take roughly an hour, and you'll definitely be amazed at this man-made structure. Considering it was built in the hot and dry California deserts over 100 years ago, and without the assistance of modern machinery, this underground home is an architectural phenomenon.
Fresno is located roughly halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, in the Central Valley region of California. Known for its many agricultural contributions, the summer weathers are often harsh with average daily temperatures reaching well above the 100-degree mark. Winters can be just as dramatic, with weather sometimes near freezing and thick fog present during the cooler seasons.
If you are a resident or happen to be visiting, the Forestiere Gardens are a hidden gem well worth an afternoon and the price of admission. When I went, adult tickets were roughly $17 USD.
The gardens are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays (except for select holidays), as well as the months of January and February. The standard tour season runs from April through November, weather permitting. Always check the website before visiting.
- March: Saturday and Sunday only, 10 AM to 3 PM
- April through October: Wednesday thru Sunday, 10 AM to 4 PM
- OPEN Memorial Day and Labor Day
- November: Wednesday thru Friday, 10 AM to 3 PM, Saturday and Sunday, 10 AM to 3 PM
- CLOSED Thanksgiving Day
- Adults: $17
- Discounted Rate: $15 (for seniors age 60+, college students with ID, active duty military with ID)
- Children: $8 (ages 5 through 17)
- Children 4 and under get in for FREE
A Short History
Baldassare Forestiere was born in 1879 and immigrated from Sicily in the early 20th century. Landing in Boston, he found work with the urban subway systems, where he learned his excavation techniques. With land purchased in Fresno in 1906, he hoped to complete an orange orchard. Upon arriving at the ten-acre site, he discovered that the land was unsuitable to cultivate fruit trees due to the hardpan soil.
Using his ingenuity, he began digging under the rocky layers and discovered that the trees would grow beneath the topsoil surface. He began digging tunnels and carving out areas which would become suitable for living and thus created his underground gardens.
From 1906 (when he arrived in Fresno) up until 1946 (when he died from pneumonia-related complications), he worked tirelessly carving out a series of underground rooms which not only provided him shelter, but also gave him the opportunity to produce the fruit trees he once dreamed of.
His story is a great example of the American Dream.
There are few places like this to see, and when one considers that Forestiere did all this by the sweat of his brow, in the unforgiving and remote terrain of Fresno, his efforts should be commended.
Some Personal Observations
When walking under the curved arches and cool tunnels, you are greeted with delicate breezes which are a contrast to the desert air above. You move through passageways that bring to mind excellent European wine cellars or a secret labyrinth hideaway, with skylights and benches carved from the stone.
This is a world unto its own, and its creator was an engineer with keen dreams and sacred visions. The theme of threes and sevens are testimonies to Forestiere's believe in the Trinity and his adherence to his Roman Catholic upbringing. In many areas, the trees are placed in groups of three and the branches designed so they would sprout out in triplicates. The fruit from some of these plants, placed in the ground 80 or 90 years ago, still provide potent specimens. Trees reach out through skylights carved in stone and provide natural ceilings to grant shade and prevent deter unwanted rain showers.
The floors are dirt tampered down into a comfortable carpet. One is inspired to remove their shoes and walk around and imagine a life in the caves, the way we once lived—simply—before civilization. The cracked hardpan stones provide simple walls and sometimes serve as table tops for dinner settings and stools to rest on a weary evening. The acoustics here are perfect and the passageways permit the cool air to move about, discouraging the heat through the series of openings in the ground above.
It is quiet and peaceful here and even the busy sounds from the nearby freeway are etched away as you walk beneath the earth. The slants in the flooring discourage flooding during any sudden rains, which, although rare, do happen on occasion.
A Genius Before His Time
One of the most interesting things about this underground home is that it is almost completely self-contained. There are sleeping quarters and a place to cook and bathe. There was no need for air conditioning or heating because the temperature was constant throughout the year. The elements were not harmful and the little rainwater that did get into the house served a purpose: It was a natural reservoir for the many plants and trees or drained into small wells dug out along the sides of the dirt hallways.
Forestiere also created a fish pond with a bridge over it that provided natural beauty as well as practicality. The fish he caught from the local San Joaquin River were brought back and put into his aquarium. Should he ever be hungry after a day's labor, he did not have to go the market for food, because there was a resource there.
From the passageways carved into the earth and the arches that held up the long and cool hallways, Forestiere demonstrated a sharp determination and genuine wisdom. His love of the planet must have been grandiose and the way he carved out his natural dwelling, with no written plans or formal scientific education, testifies to the marvel of the human spirit.
He even designed the wiring to bring electricity into his home should he want the company of a radio program or require extra lighting for his study.
A placard on a table near the ballroom has a quote from Albert Einstein: "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds." Baldassare was certainly a great spirit.
His dream of becoming an orange tree farmer was deferred. He created his masterpiece underneath the desert tundra of what would one day become Fresno. He eventually wanted to turn his site into a resort and dug tunnels large enough for cars to come through. A ballroom was built and his dream was to create a place where the city's citizens could find relief from the heat and dust.
A bathtub, a comfortable bed, stove to cook your food, and a table to eat from. What are the other luxuries one requires? A small study, an altar to give worship to, a garden to relax and enjoy the light from the sun and the cool breezes. What other gifts from nature can one implore?
He worked up until his death in 1946 at the age of 67.
The Gardens are on Fresno's Upper West Side
All photos, although taken by the author, are property of the Forestiere Gardens.
Have you visited the Underground Gardens?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2018 Finn