Underground Gardens – Baldasare Forestiere

Underground Gardens – Baldasare Forestiere

Forestiere Baldasare 1879–1946
Built: 1904-1946

5021 W Shaw Avenue
Fresno, CA

The genius of this place is in its adaptation to the terrain. The story began back in 1905, when Forestiere Baldasare, a Sicilian immigrant, had come westward in the early 1900s with dreams of farming success. But the San Joaquin Valley has a shelf of hardpan rock not far below the surface that limits its agricultural use. So what this determined young man did was dig. Carving out over the course of four decades a truly labyrinthine series of subterranean rooms and passageways, in which he lived and sometimes entertained visitors.

Over the next forty years, he created a subterranean network of over a hundred niches, courtyards, patios, rooms and passageways. He used the native stone to create complex arches, pathways and planters. He used only hand tools, and when he died in 1946, he had spent a total of $300 on supplies.

The terraced stairways and Roman arches that pop up periodically throughout the complex may have been inspired by Forestiere’s Mediterranean roots. Fruit trees and grapevines that he planted are an integral part of his courtyards, openings where sunlight comes beaming through.

For something “underground” it’s remarkably well-lit. Except at night, when as his nephew who runs the place told us, “it’s pitch black down here.” Skylights and courtyards let in sunlight and rainwater, and fruit trees and grape vines abound, lit by the sun from above, and protected from heat and frost below. Above the ground, where their crowns emerge, the trees look like low shrubs.

Definitely one of those hard to shoot kinds of places … The rooms themselves, carved out by hand, are nothing fancy. The rockwork’s nice, but seldom elaborate. And yet, as a whole, it’s a remarkable achievement, unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

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(Photos courtesy of Mike Murphy, Don Mayberger and Randy Mason, Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations & text © copyright 2006-2014 Kelly Ludwig, all rights reserved)


On DVD – Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations, “Cali-Zona, Here We Come,” KCPT, Kansas City Public Television, 2007.

California State Historic Landmark 916

“Fantasy Worlds” by Deidi Von Schaewen and John Maizels, Taschen, New York, 1999.

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“American Folk Art, A Regional Reference” by Kristin G. Congdon and Kara Kelley Hallmark, ABC-CLIO Publishers, California, 2012.

“American Self-Taught Art: An Illustrated Analysis of 20th Century Artists and Trends with 1,319 Capsule Biographies” by Florence Laffal and Julius Laffal, 2003.

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“Self Taught, Outsider, and Folk Art—A guide to American Artists, Locations and Resources” by Betty-Carol Sellen with Cynthia J. Johnson, McFarland & Company, 2000.

“American Self-Taught Art: An Illustrated Analysis of 20th Century Artists and Trends with 1,319 Capsule Biographies” by Florence Laffal and Julius Laffal, 2003.

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