Monday, July 23, 2012

Forestiere Underground Gardens and Route 99

Awhile ago, I read an article in the paper about the lesser traveled Route 99 which runs through California's central valley.  This article made the 99 sound like a nonstop crazy party with wacky roadside attractions around every corner and towns that were untouched since the 60s.  Well...it wasn't like "Route 66 turned upside down," it was more like, kinda-more-interesting-than-the-5.  HOWEVER, the destination was the Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno and it was, by far, one of the coolest places I've visited.

So, the story goes, Baldassare Forestiere was living in Italy and his father wouldn't let him take over the family's citrus farming business because he wasn't the first born.  So Baldassare buys all this land in Fresno, CA-sight unseen-to start his own orchards.  In 1901 he travels to America and finds that the land he bought has a thick layer of hard pan soil, making it impossible to plant his orchards.  SADS.  So he's stuck out there in the brutal central valley summer with nothing but acres of unusable soil.  He digs an underground cellar and all his neighbors come hangout down there to catch a break from the blazing heat.  And then he keeps digging(using only hand tools) and creates grottos, chapels, living quarters, and garden courts all underground.  And this is not just one layer of underground living, he excavated three stories underground full of different tunnels and rooms, with the hopes of one day turning it into a hotel.  If this sounds dark and dreary to you, it's quite the opposite.  Because of all the large skylights he created, the place is filled with sunlight.  SO, now that he has sunlight and has dug under the layers of hard pan, he goes about planting his fruit trees below the skylights.  Because these underground gardens are three stories deep, he could plant a tree on the first level, trim the branches on the second, and pick the fruit from the third.  Over one-hundred-years later, these trees are still thriving and producing plenty of produce.
So now he has his whole living arrangement set up down there, he creates a summertime bedroom, designed to stay cool, a wintertime bedroom to stay warm, a kitchen with a stove, an incredible bathroom, wells for water, fireplaces, and he digs a little lake down there and fills it with fish so he can catch his own meals.  One of my favorite parts was a dining room on the second floor that had a skylight cut above the table and fitted with glass and his plan was to make a little pond above it and fill it with tropical fish so there'd be an aquarium over the diner's heads.  He also had plans to build a tunnel under a lake on the property that exited on an island in the middle of the lake.  He had a lot of plans; he was building for over 40 years (until his final days) and created at least 10 acres of underground living.  As he created very few blueprints, the extent of these underground tunnels and rooms are unknown.
After his death in 1946, his land was parceled off to 4 remaining relatives.  Only one parcel is open to viewing and, according to the tour guide, the other family members have either sold off their property or are in the process of selling it and have no interest in maintaining it as Baldassare had envisioned it.  So, basically, there could be plenty more acres of his underground creations but it's private property so we'll never know. 

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