Cars shimmer in the heat of California’s San Joaquin Valley. We’ve come to a place known as "highway city" -- an area crisscrossed with expressways and thoroughfares. It might be the last place you’d expect to find the Forestiere Underground Gardens. It's an underground complex of earthen tunnels containing bedrooms, fishponds, a chapel, a ballroom and endless rooms where citrus trees grow beneath big round skylights.
These tunnels are the creation of one man: Baldassare Forestiere.
“Forestiere was a Sicilian immigrant, born in 1879. And he came to [the] United States with the dream of growing citrus,” says Shera Rodrick, a manager at the Gardens.
Rodrick says after coming to the U.S., Forestiere worked digging subway tunnels in Boston before setting off for California, a paradise for food growers.
“He was going around California, and he had heard about the San Joaquin Valley, and of course we grow all types of fruit here,” Rodrick says.
Even today almost half of California’s total agriculture is produced in the San Joaquin Valley.
In 1905, Forestiere bought 70 acres of land. But when he dug into it he found a thick layer of hardpan, a mixture of clay and sand that’s difficult to grow plants in. At first he let it be, and then he hired himself out as a laborer just to make ends meet.
Then came his first summer in Fresno.
“It was over 100 degrees almost every single day, sometimes getting to 115 degrees," Rodrick explains. "He was miserable."
Baking in the heat, his thoughts turned to his homeland, and to the cool temperatures underground in the wine cellars and catacombs.
“So he thought, 'I’ll make myself a room underground,' ” Rodrick says.
Forestiere began digging. He hollowed out a little room and moved his bed downstairs. He dug out a well. He moved his stove underground, then the rest of his house and then everything else.
Underground tunnels and rooms branched out in all directions. In the first 17 years he’d hollowed out 50 rooms. Eventually he dug out a ballroom, a chapel, fishponds, bedrooms and gardens.
He painted frescoes on a few of the walls, but many remain bare and a few are bursting with his ingenuity. To reinforce the walls, he used recycled materials that were easily available to him like recycled rebar, wagon wheels, chicken wire and even springs from a mattress.
He worked on the tunnels for about 40 years. Because he never made a map we don’t know how big the underground gardens became.
“We still to this day get contacted by people," Rodrick says. "I had a gentleman down the street came over here and said he just bought a piece of land not too far from us and there’s a cellar in it that looks just like Baldassare’s.”
One way you can tell it’s Baldassare Forestiere’s work? The tunnels are often carved to exactly his height: 5-foot-6. So if you’re tall, you’ll need to duck when you visit.
He also infused the architecture with spirituality. As a Roman Catholic, he did more than just create a chapel. Many doorways and windows are grouped in threes and sevens to represent the Holy Trinity and the seven sacraments.
Forestiere wasn’t a lonely moleman, as outsiders might suspect. He had many friends and built rooms for entertaining, like the ballroom, guest room and gardens. When he had visitors, the easiest way to find Forestiere would be to ring the big bell above the chapel and he would appear out of the tunnels.
Though a lifelong bachelor, his nephew says that Forestiere did have lady visitors.
“All we know is that Rick, his nephew, he would hear high-heeled shoes echo down the halls when he would knock on the door.”
The gardens are not dark, scary or dank. In fact, they are light, airy and cool. Part of what makes it lovely is the number of citrus trees throughout the tunnels.
After breaking through the hardpan, Forestiere’s trees grew so well they extended through skylights sometimes two or three floors up. He would walk around on the surface, bending down here and there to pluck an orange off the ground.
“Citrus trees typically have a lifespan of 40-50 years of producing good fruit, and we have trees here that are over 100 years old and still producing delicious fruit,” Rodrick says.
This might be because the fruit are more protected from the scorching Fresno sun.
Forestiere worked on his underground complex until his death in 1946. With no children of his own, the land was left to Forestiere’s brother, who opened it to the public. And it’s been an oasis for visitors ever since.
This story was originally produced for SFMOMA’s Raw Material podcast.