Fresno Underground Gardens

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

In our search for inspiring new ideas for solving California’s housing crisis, we must dig deeper. We must take our cues from Archimedes: Give me a place on which to stand, and I will move the earth.” 

How deep must we dig? At least to the depths plumbed by Baldassare Forestiere.

If you’ve never heard of Forestiere, you’re not alone. He’s never become the household name he should be in California. He deserves far more recognition for being the creator of Fresno’s greatest structure, which is also one of our state’s most enduring artistic achievements.

California’s collective ignorance about Forestiere and the underground wonderland he built is understandable, since his seven-acre subterranean development of gardens, tunnels and rooms is hidden under a lot on Shaw Avenue, between Highway 99 and a Carl’s Jr. 

Forestiere died in 1946, after he’d been digging for 40 years, but we must revive him now, not because of his skill with a pickaxe but because of his spirit. Our state is not responding to its housing shortage with invention and pluck, but with rules, regulations and mandates. 

Forestiere’s story points us to another path. We must free Californians to create housing in new and unexpected ways, so that we all might do what he once did: turn a terrible situation into something new and beautiful.  

Baldassare Forestiere was born in 1879, in a hamlet in Sicily. As a young man, he fled his country and domineering father, a fruit grower, for the U.S. Arriving on the East Coast, he learned about underground construction while toiling on the Croton Aqueduct and the Holland Tunnel. In 1904, eager to farm his own land, he purchased a 70-acre plot in Fresno, with the goal of growing citrus on it.

Then he dug into the ground and—disaster—he struck hardpan, the rock-like soil that is impermeable to water and impossible to cultivate. 

He might have surrendered, but he didn’t. Instead, he began carving a home for himself out of that rocky soil structure, using the displaced rocks as building material to reinforce arched doorways and other architectural details. 

He also discovered, when he dug underneath the hardpan, rich soil in which he could plant citrus trees, grapevines and other plants—more than 10 feet below the surface. Planted underground, these plants grew more slowly, but also better—so much so that today many of his original trees are still producing fruit. 

It took him eight years to complete his residence—a sitting room, courts, a library chapel, a fish pond, and different bedrooms for winter and summer weather. But he couldn’t stop digging; eventually, over 40 years he hand-built more than 65 rooms and grottos, spread across three distinct levels, extending 25 feet underground. He may have wanted to turn the place into a resort, but he never did. (He made money digging irrigation ditches and building other things for neighboring farmers).

Forestiere’s house reflects an untutored genius. He did not write down designs, plans or drawings, or seek a building permit. (In fact, he did not read or write English). Instead, he followed his instincts, and they were good. Even though it’s underground, the place feels open and airy. There is a Sunrise Patio and a Sunset Patio, a banquet hall, a chapel courtyard, and, like the White House, a West Wing. He even carved out an auto tunnel that allowed him to drive into his own house.

Forestiere was ahead of his time in designing a sustainable home. He created skylights and tunnels to bring both breezes and sunlight into the space. He positioned his underground planters to catch rain water, and he built a drainage system with a cistern to minimize flooding. He grew his own food—not just fruit, but also herbs. He had a pool (with a bridge) and an aquarium stocked with fish taken from the San Joaquin River. He even achieved a cool escape from the brutal Fresno summers. On my recent midday visit, the temperature was 99 degrees in Fresno, but it was just 80 underground.

What drove him? Some accounts say he was preparing for a bride from Italy, who never arrived. Others suggest a profound divine inspiration—Forestiere was a Catholic, and his underground home and gardens are full of spaces for prayer and religious devotion.

In 1923, he told an inquiring Fresno Bee reporter, “The visions in my mind almost overwhelm me.” In a terrific pictorial history of the underground gardens, Silvio Manno, another Italian immigrant to Fresno, quoted Forestiere as saying: “To make something with a lot of money, that is easy, but to make something out of nothing—now that is really something.”

Forestiere’s underground building merits more attention, and not just because underground homes, despite their costs and maintenance challenges, make more sense in an era of climate change (since living underground offers protection from extreme temperatures) and calamity (since earth-protected homes are cheaper to insure against winds, storms and fire).  

Forestiere’s place remind us that ingenuity, in housing as well as in other things, rarely comes in expected places, or by following the rules. 

Behind our housing shortage is a deficit of spirit. We have stopped following our housing whims and dreams. We live at a time where anyone can stop anything, when a project that is out of the ordinary is easily blocked by any number of legal tools.  So is it any wonder that we don’t build much of anything at all?

Indeed, just repairing structures triggers so much scrutiny that our housing stock is some of the most rundown in the entire country. And even the tiniest housing opportunities for creativity are quickly closed. As soon as the state opened the door to the construction of “granny flats,” municipalities imposed restrictions to discourage their construction.

Such intransigence and inaction in the face of crisis is really an invitation. Rather than lamenting what we don’t have, rather than limiting our imaginations, rather than building small amounts of the same eco-unfriendly housing, we need to start digging—literally and metaphorically.  

And if you need inspiration or ideas, pack up your car or board a bus to Fresno. The answers are lying there, deep in the rocks and dirt.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square

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