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How Art Shapes Our Lives: Forestiere’s Underground Gardens

By Sal Maccarone —

It is accepted knowledge that most artists function primarily from the right side of the brain. This means that sometimes they will approach a problem or challenge in ways that most people do not understand. Under a “right-brain” spell for pretty much my whole life, I know what it is like to leave others scratching their heads.

Every once in a while, a real visionary will appear and leave the world a special contribution. Totally unaware that they may be creating something for the ages, this type of “pure” and driven artist can change the way that we think.

Baldassare Forestiere (1879-1946) was a Sicilian man who immigrated to America in 1901 at the age of 22. He came from Rometta in Italy, which is close to where both sets of my grandparents once lived. He entered the United States at Ellis Island and, consequently, spent some time in the east. After working as a subway and tunnel digger in both Boston and New York, Baldassare set his sights on California.

Fresno was a likely place for him to settle because of the many similarities to his homeland.  As a way to earn a living, he began planting grapes for the established farmers in the valley. This is what the young man really wanted to do with his life and — not just grapes. He wanted to plant oranges, lemons and other fruit trees native to Sicily.

Baldassare worked hard, saved his money and, ultimately, purchased seventy acres of what he understood to be good farmland — sight unseen. As it turned out, the property was located over an ancient river bed and was only dusted with a few inches of topsoil. Below this thin veneer lay “dead-pan,” a kind of dry sediment which is only one step away from becoming rock.

Hopes dashed? No! He began digging down, at first only to build a cellar in which to escape the heat. While carving out this first room he had a vision of planting trees below ground; there they would be safe from the frost and 110 degree heat. By incorporating skylights into the design he was able to collect water and provide sunshine at the same time. Once this was thought out, he relied on experience he gained while working in the subways and his memories of the Catacombs in Italy. He continued digging and building for the next forty years.

At first he was painted as “the crazy guy who plants underground,” until people began to realize how smart this dedicated man really was. Before long they were paying him, especially during July and August, just to be able to spend a little time where it was cooler.

Forestiere had come up with an ingenious system of excavating, all with a pick and shovel, and then re-using the extracted dead-pan as building block. The resulting nearly-unbelievable achievement, known today as the Underground Gardens, is an example of what archaeologists and art historians call vernacular architecture. This term is used to describe a type of construction which only utilizes locally available resources.

Baldassare once said, “To make something with lots of money, that is easy – but to make something out of nothing… now that is something!”

California Historical Landmark number 916, Forestiere Underground Gardens, is located at 5021 W. Shaw Avenue in Fresno, close to hwy 99.

If you care to be truly amazed, it is worth the short trip south to see this work of art for yourself. All that remains of the original 70 acres are the 10 that contain the complex. Among other things to explore are an untold number of chambers, courts, and patios, (all at different subterranean levels), which are connected by a system of passageways. For those who are interested in horticulture, there are many unique shrubs and grafted fruit trees to see which are all now approaching one hundred years of age.

Visit the website for Underground Gardens here.

Photos of Underground Gardens by Sal Maccarone

Sal Maccarone is a foothills-based artist and craftsman

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