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BURIED TREASURE : A Legal Battle Soils the Splendor of Subterranean Gardens

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Baldasare Forestiere’s eccentric home was an architectural marvel, a labyrinth of 65 rooms built completely underground, connected by long winding tunnels and illuminated by skylights carved in the earth.

Dozens of subterranean fruit trees thrived under the skylights, 10 to 20 feet beneath the ground, some bearing seven different varieties of fruit because of Forestiere’s experimental grafting.

Known as Forestiere’s underground gardens, the maze of rooms sprawling over seven acres became a popular tourist attraction after the old man died in 1946. The garden drew more than 50,000 visitors a year, and eventually was named a state historic landmark and placed on the national register of historic places.

But Forestiere’s once magnificent gardens now are abandoned and in disrepair, no longer open to tourists and in danger of being sold to developers. The gardens were closed in 1986 because of a legal battle between their owners, Forestiere’s two nephews.

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Crumbling Entrance

The manicured expanse of lawn that once surrounded the entrance to the gardens now is covered with waist-high weeds. Pomegranates hang withered and black on parched trees near the entrance, and desiccated grapevines sag over arbors, too dry to bear fruit.

The winding path that descends into the gardens is framed by crumbling walls, archways filigreed with cobwebs and floors strewn with rubble. The smell is dank and moldy, a setting for an Edgar Allan Poe story.

But as the path winds below ground and connects to a tunnel, the temperature drops about 10 degrees, and many underground trees, sheltered from the unrelenting summer sun, their roots tapping natural springs, are thriving and bearing fruit.

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Some Parts Preserved

And much of the underground architecture still is in surprisingly good condition. Forestiere, a Sicilian immigrant who sculpted his rooms and tunnels with only a pick, shovel and wheelbarrow, had an intuitive genius for engineering and design, architectural experts say.

Rick Forestiere, one of the two owners, wants to preserve the gardens as they are for posterity. But he claims that his brother, Joseph Forestiere--who declined to comment--is interested in turning the gardens into a tourist trap with souvenir shops and restaurants, and also has explored selling the property to developers.

Until the dispute is settled, which may take years, the gardens will stay closed. Without the revenue from visitors, Rick Forestiere said, it is impossible to properly care for the gardens, and they will continue to deteriorate.

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The gardens once were isolated, surrounded by miles of flat, parched land on the western edge of Fresno. But now a busy thoroughfare cuts through the front of the property, and a scrap metal yard and fast-food restaurant border the gardens.

Architectural experts fear that one of the finest examples of residential folk art in the nation may soon be destroyed. The gardens have the same whimsical qualities and remarkable design as the Watts Towers, said David Gebhard, a professor at UC Santa Barbara and an expert on architectural history.

“The gardens deserve all the care and respect we give any historic object,” Gebhard said. “It’s quite a remarkable place. It would be a disaster if we were unable to pass them on to our children and grandchildren.”

Baldasare Forestiere learned about subterranean engineering after he immigrated to New York from Sicily in 1901 and worked as a “sandhog,” building subways in Boston and the Holland Tunnel in New York.

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A few years later he bought 70 acres in Fresno, sight unseen, and was assured by the seller that the land was fertile. But when he arrived in Fresno, Forestiere discovered that two feet beneath the surface was a shield of hardpan, an extremely hard rock surface.

Found Heat Unbearable

He was forced to work as a laborer for other farmers, but he continued to live on his property and built a wooden house with a cellar. Forestiere, who was accustomed to a Mediterranean climate, found the heat of Fresno unbearable and spent much of his first summer in the cool stone cellar, said Rick Forestiere. He eventually built a kitchen next to the cellar so he did not have to cook in the heat. He then built a dining room, his first skylight, an underground patio, another winding tunnel, and he did not stop digging until his death at 67.

“After a while the rooms ceased to be just places to live,” Rick Forestiere said. “He became completely enamored with his labor. It became a work of art to him.”

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When Rick Forestiere was a boy he recalls watching his uncle suddenly become inspired, leaping up and scratching out on the dirt the design for his next maze of rooms. He would study the design for a moment and then shout excitedly in Italian: “Singolare come il mare!” (As unique as the sea.)

Forestiere once hoped to marry and he built a small chapel and bell tower beside an underground courtyard. But his fiancee could not compete with his grand obsession.

“I was told he fell in love with a girl in Fresno,” said Rick Forestiere’s wife, Lorraine. “But the girl’s father didn’t want his daughter living underground. Forestiere refused to leave his gardens, so the father arranged her marriage to someone else.”

Forestiere spent the next 40 years as a bachelor, sculpting his life’s work. His only blueprint was that day’s inspiration. No two rooms are exactly alike.

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“I once asked him why none of his rooms were perfectly round,” Rick Forestiere recalled, running a finger along a stone archway. “He shouted that a jackass can make a perfect circle if you tie a string to his nose and let him walk around you. He told me that to make something crooked and beautiful is a wonderful thing.”

One room contains a large glass-bottomed fish pond. Forestiere built another room about 10 feet directly below so he could sit and study the fish swimming above him. Over the skylights he planted varieties of green and red grapes, which are luminescent in the sun, like stained-glass windows. He built a winery, a bath, a reading room, atriums, patios, all flowing into passageways.

In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, the gardens are extremely well-designed, architects say. His skylights are built so rain waters the trees but does not flood the earthen floors. His ventilation system keeps the temperature moderate year round. He constructed curved ceilings without pillars and elegant archways patterned after the catacombs of ancient Rome.

Forestiere was an expert horticulturist and, through grafting, he grew grapefruits, lemons, oranges, tangerines and other citrus fruits on the same trees. His subterranean trees, protected from the frost and the heat, grew through the skylights so Baldasare could walk along the surface, bend down and pick the fruit.

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Malcolm Wells, an architect famous for designing homes integrated with the earth, called Forestiere “an untutored genius.”

“Thirteen years of training and the best we architects can produce are metal and glass boxes standing in parking lots,” Wells once wrote. “Forestiere demolishes us with a wheelbarrow and dream.”

Forestiere occasionally gave tours of his gardens to raise money so he could continue to dig without the distraction of regular employment. But he cared little for money or possessions.

“I am broke,” he once told a reporter, “but the cavern and all the work it represents are worth more than a million dollars to me.”

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After he died, his family leased the property to a man who promoted Forestiere as a freak--"The Human Mole"--to attract tourists. He lowered some of the archways to make it appear as if Forestiere scurried about like an animal.

Rick Forestiere was angry at the degrading depiction of his uncle, and when the lease expired, he managed the property himself. Forestiere, he said, deserves respect, not ridicule, for his dedication. For 40 years he worked seven days a week, from early in the morning to dusk, until the last light filtered through the skylights.

Whenever he cut himself while working, Rick Forestiere recalled, he squeezed his blood into the mortar, so after he was gone, a part of him would live on within his creation.


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