Fresno, CA: The hidden genius of the Forestiere Underground Gardens

* New posts go up every Thursday, so come back next week for another day of exploration, or a roundup of my favorite spots and fashion trends!

** COVID-19 notes: masks were on the whole time (save for the moment we took a few photos), social distancing practiced and sanitizers available.

In a subterranean complex, which extends three levels under the surface of the earth, there’s a promise of cool weather that comes true. You can feel the shift — a brush of cold air as light as a peck on the cheek, a whiff of elsewhere. The crisp air bounces off curves of the cavernous walls, pressured by the varying width of the pathways that guide it where it needs to go. Hot air escapes through the conical skylights, and the cool air hovers below. 

Above ground, the October sun is at its zenith, and the mercury hovers in the mid-90s in what feels like an endless epilogue of an exhaustingly hot summer. Down here, however, it’s 10 degrees cooler. And that’s exactly why a man by the name of Baldassare Forestiere spent 40 years of life building it — this crazy, peculiar underground network of patios, grottoes and gardens, all connected through passageways he dug by himself.

I first heard about the Forestiere Underground Gardens online, and the discovery itself was by accident. I’m someone who’s always looking for cool new places to visit, so the fact that it took me over three years of living in Southern California to find this place is odd. When I did, though, I was immediately transfixed. I emailed Anton with a link to the place’s website. It was nonnegotiable — we were going. I made a reservation for a tour, and we embarked on a three-hour-long drive to Fresno from Santa Clarita. 

To hear our tour guide Rhanda talk about Baldassare (pronounced with a special Italian drag on the last letter), is to be put in a quiet mood. That’s partly because, Rhanda, with her natural propensity for describing everything in precise detail, is a pleasure to listen to. The other reason is Baldassare’s story itself, which is so damn fascinating. Rhanda’s got some really good material to work with, and you can tell she thinks so, too. 

Baldassare was a square-jawed man with dark, popcorn hair and a pair of downward-slanting eyebrows, which often makes him look concerned in black-and-white photographs. He gives off the appearance of a simple man — someone who doesn’t quite understand why anyone would choose him as the subject of those photographs. Someone whose wants are few and asks little. But Baldassare embodies an intriguing duality, because tucked under that demeanor, there’s a quiet, but enormous ambition. 

After falling into an argument with his dictatorial dad, in 1901, Baldassare left his hometown of Sicily in pursuit of an independent life in the United States, along with his older brother. After several stints on the east coast, he moved to Fresno, California, where he snagged a few jobs as a farmer and bought acres of land in hopes of turning it into a citrus farm. Much to his disappointment, he found the land he bought pretty much useless for farming. Past the topsoil, Baldassare found hardpan conditions that made the soil harden up like cement. Not to mention, the Fresno heat — which often escalated to triple digits — made living in his small wooden house almost intolerable. But Baldassare was a man of solutions. He balked at nothing. He didn’t lose heart. 

As far back as the first century, Romans excavated subterranean passageways to be used as burial grounds for the dead. Almost exactly a year ago, when visiting the Eternal City, we hopped on a tour bus and drove into suburban Rome to the 2,000-year-old catacombs. Walking past ancient tombs and crypts that the dead once called home after life — it was an experience I’ll never forget. But these underground tunnels weren’t just for those who’d passed. There were also chapels, markets and homes where people lived. The Terme di Caracalla, for example, housed a gymnasium, changing rooms and numerous baths heated by an underfloor heating system and cold plunge-pools. 

Near the Sicilian village where Baldassare spent his childhood, there are also ancient cave dwellings and grottos that housed many families. So, what if, Baldassare thought, he could do the same? An underground abode would solve two problems. First, he could plant his fruit trees in planters, and they’d grow lusciously in the cooler microclimate. It would also offer heat-wave relief. And lastly — and this was more of a longing than a problem needing a fix — it would also connect Baldassare to his past life in Italy. It seemed like the right call. So, he got to it with only his farmer’s tools — picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and a scraper pulled by two mules — at his disposal. 

We’re standing in the trinity garden, one of the Forestiere Underground Gardens’ many sunlit courtyards, when Rhanda — who has a poetic demeanor and a sing-songy way of speaking — tells us this. I listen, rapt. “Baldassare was also a master grafter,” she says, pointing to the tree growing strong and confident in the middle of the courtyard, dripping with both lemons and oranges. Before COVID-19 hit, visitors were allowed to take home some of the fruit, the growth of which Baldassare worked so hard, against all odds, to make possible. 

It wasn’t easy or as traditional as tending to an above-ground farm, but Baldassare found inventive solutions. Within the tunnels, Baldassare chiseled conical-shaped skylights, which provided sunlight, rain and increased airflow for his crops. He built planters underground, angling them in a way that allowed for indirect light and designing a drainage system that prevented flooding. To drag out the growing season, Baldassare planted things at different times of the year across each of the three levels of his home. That way, he always had fresh fruit. He grew everything from citrus to berries and even less-common treats like kumquats, loquats and jujube fruit. (One monstrous tree, called the tree of seven fruit, still grows three varieties of oranges, two kinds of lemons, grapefruit and cedro citrons.

The over-100 years old trees and plants are scattered throughout the resort, their heads peeking out of the open-air skylights. During the first part of the tour, Rhanda guides us through the passageways to Baldassare’s first residence — a modest room with a bench, a bed, a small living room and a vented wood-burning stove where he did his cooking. At first, Baldassare’s priorities seemed small, smart and simple. But once his appetite for excavation was whetted, he became eager to create more. Over the years, Baldassare dug deeper, opening up more rooms and grottos, and so much more that my mind can’t wrap around as we walk through the resort he hand-chiseled with barely any outside help. 

The corridors worm deeper, in some moments, beyond the reach of natural light, before opening back up again into another sunlit courtyard or a room illuminated by crevices of overhead light. The sun pools into Baldassare’s former dining room, where a fruit tree grows from the middle of the dining table like a center pole umbrella. All Baldassare had to do for dessert was reach up and pluck a treat. In his kitchen, there’s a stove, built-in shelves and even a foldout table. I wonder what mealtime the Forestiere residence was like — the clatter-clank of Baldassare’s ornate tableware and the hot grease of breakfast. Every time Rhanda leads us to a different section of the resort, I turn to look at Anton briefly. Even with our masks on, even in the dark, even on the move, he knows I’m amazed, or perhaps even lost in the story of Baldassare’s life. 

I try to picture Baldassare working, counting, uno, due, tre. He didn’t have any plans or blueprints to work off of — he let his mind dictate his hands. In 1923, Baldassare was quoted saying to a Fresno Bee reporter, “The visions in my mind almost overwhelm me.” Being here is somewhat akin to standing in the eye of that tornadic mind. I’m tempted to say, “You have to see it” because some of Baldassare’s work is frustratingly beyond the reach of words.

We filter through his kitchen — all six of us in the group — to the Sunrise Plaza, where he designed a fishpond for storing the fish he’d catch. That way, he could just squat down and grab one whenever a fish course was on the menu. No fridge needed. At the far end of the plaza, nestled into a cave, is a bathtub. Baldassare left a cistern at ground level where the hot Fresno sun would heat the water for his bath. 

Along the tour, we learn of other things, too. Like how he created a glass-bottomed aquarium, underneath which he could sit and read (Rhanda tells us this is her favorite feature of the place, and I nod in agreement), or how he dug an auto tunnel so he could drive into his not-so-humble-anymore abode. Or how he created “sunrise” and “sunset” rooms, each positioned in a way that provided best sun-peeping vantage points. I try to imagine Baldassare sitting in his sunset room, watching the last of the day slide down the stone-built walls. 

In a way, Baldassare designed his underground castle to be self-sufficient and sustainable. Not just by way of survival basics, but also in regards to self-entertainment — and worship. And since he was a very religious man, he also turned a section of his residence into a chapel. (As evidence of passion for his Catholicism, you’ll also see Christian iconography and symbolism in various corners of the complex. He often carved, built and arranged things in threes and sevens — both of which are religiously significant numbers). Baldassare never married or had children — everything he created he had mostly to himself. 

As our world grapples with a pandemic that shooed us away into our homes, I can’t help but think of Baldassare’s isolated life here. While the rest of us are burdened by loneliness, Baldassare embraced it. In a book about his life, along with other Italian-American immigrants’, I read that locals from the Italian community in the area often referred to him as a “human mole” and thought of him as an eccentric, strange man. His family back in Sicily, the book claims, was even embarrassed by him. Others didn’t understand why he chose to live and work in solitude.

The poet May Sarton once wrote that “loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is richness of self.” I find that to be so true in the case of Baldassare. Though he died from pneumonia at an early age of 67, his work — and home — was continued by his brother Giuseppe and later passed down to his Giuseppe’s son, Ric Forestiere (now in his early 90s), who would often visit and tend to the place before COVID-19 came to town. (Baldassare’s grandnieces are the ones operating the business as a tourist destination.) Every Friday through Monday, the place welcomes guests, just like me, who get to enjoy the place for an hour and peek into the inner workings of a man who once notably said, “To make something with a lot of money, that is easy; but to make something out of nothing — now that is really something.”

As an Los Angeles-based journalist and fashion writer, Mari Alexander highlights local and global talents through runway reviews, designer interviews, and trend reports.

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