Our valley’s summer heat is intense and unrelenting. By the time that cool fall days finally arrive, they are welcome and refreshing.
With this year’s heat already here, it’s time to start thinking about ways to beat the heat. We’ve got a lot of choices in the air conditioning age – many more than our ancestors did.
One of the best options to have survived the test of time is Fresno’s Underground Gardens. From 1906 to 1946, Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere carved a unique underground home beneath 10 acres of hardpan in northwest Fresno.
Forestiere’s subterranean habitation is one of the most intriguing and innovative structures in the state.
Although inspired by the ancient catacombs of Italy, Forestiere created something entirely new – an underground world full of life. He built large courtyards lit by skylights – windows to the aboveground world that also made it possible to grow a wide variety of trees and vines.
Rooms were constructed at three different levels with temperatures ranging from 10 to 30 degrees cooler than on the surface.
Baldassare was so pleased with his work that he kept building, eventually intending to open an underground resort. Remarkably, he did it all in his spare time with hand tools, a scraper, and two mules. Although his death in 1946 prevented the resort from becoming a reality, much of his remarkable underground world can be enjoyed by visitors today.
Located on Shaw Avenue, just east of Highway 99 in Fresno, the Underground Gardens are an easy trip from Merced County. Tours are offered March through November.
The tour schedule is as follows
- March: Saturday and Sunday – tours at 10, 11, 12, 1, 2, and 3
- April and May: Wednesday through Friday – tours at 11, 12, 1, 2, and 3; Saturday and Sunday – tours at 10, 11, 12, 1, 2, and 3
- Memorial Day through Labor Day: Wednesday through Friday - tours at 10, 11, 12, 1, 2, 3, 4, including Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day
- September and October: Wednesday through Friday – tours at 11, 12, 1, 2, and 3; Saturday and Sunday – tours at 10, 11, 12, 1, 2, and 3
- November: Saturday and Sunday – tours at 10, 11, 12, 1, 2, and 3; Friday through Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend tours are offered at the same time to conclude the season.
- Special sunset tours will be offered this May by reservation only.
Tours are about an hour long and wheelchairs up to 26 inches in width may be accommodated. Tours operate as long as it isn’t raining and the ground has had long enough to dry from any recent rainfall.
On a cool day, you may want a sweater or lightweight jacket. On an extremely hot day you may find that some of the rooms are warm, even if they are 10-30 degrees cooler than the outside temperatures.
Feel free to carry a bottle of water during your tour. You can also bring a camera and take photos for personal use, though rights to the photos remain with the Underground Gardens.
For more information
- Adults: $15
- 5-17: $7
- 4 and under: free
- Seniors 60 and older: $13
- College students and active duty military: $12
The Forestiere Underground Gardens are one of the most unique, yet under appreciated architectural wonders of California. Forestiere was a self-taught genius who combined determination, hard work, innovative architecture and engineering, horticultural skill, and creative design with a spiritual symbolism that reflected his deep Catholic faith.
He was lucky to live in an age where red tape and complicated regulations had not yet made it nearly impossible for a determined and gifted person to experiment with innovative structures in his spare time. Yet many of the principles that he used in his underground world are being rediscovered as energy efficient and cost effective ways of keeping cool.
To find the Underground Gardens, exit Shaw Avenue and head east. Start looking for the sign immediately because the Gardens are only four blocks from the freeway on the south side of Shaw. You’ll have to find parking on the street which may require walking a bit on a busy day. From Shaw Avenue the Forestiere site doesn’t look like much. That’s okay, because what you’ve come to see is below the street level.
Creativity on display
No matter what you expect, the reality will probably still surprise you. In the midst of a city of lookalike tract homes and interminable shopping centers, the Forestiere Underground Gardens are a breath of fresh air. Not only are they visually interesting and a source of inspiration for creatively-minded visitors, the story of their construction is an inspiring tale of the results of hard work.
If Baldassare Forestiere could build a beautiful underground world with determination, two hands, two mules, a scraper, and 40 years, what can you do with all of the resources you have access to?
© Copyright 2013 Adam Blauert