The Man Who Lived Underground

By Shirley Lee

Print Share

    Many years ago, there lived an unusual man who chose to live underground. Some people even called him “the human mole,” because moles are small burrowing animals that spend most of their lives beneath the earth’s surface.

    Although no one is small enough to crawl through the dark earthen tunnels inhabited by moles, thousands of people have visited the Fresno Underground Gardens, an estate created by Baldasare Forestiere. This unusual “house” is a short distance north of Fresno, California, and has been open to the public since 1954.

    Mr. Forestiere was born in Messina, Sicily, in 1879. When he was 21, he came to America and worked in the underground subways of New York City.

    Later, Mr. Forestiere used his savings to move to California. He bought 800 hectares of land near Fresno, which was like a desert in those days before an irrigation dam could be built. Temperatures there reached as high as 120 degrees, and Mr. Forestiere found such heat very uncomfortable. He also found that he was unable to plant fruit trees because the earth was parched and hard.

    Remembering how cool it had been working down in the subways in New York, he decided to make tunnels to escape the heat. At first, he was going to dig only a few rooms to live in. But his digging lasted for 40 years and his underground rooms and passageways extended for three hectares. Most of the rooms were built three meters below the surface of the ground. In some places, he also dug a “second story” about seven meters down.

    Although he was only 1.6 m, Mr. Forestiere hauled hundreds of tons of earth with his wheelbarrow. He had a natural talent for designing rooms and passageways with the strongest forms of construction known—the arch, the column, and the dome. He created an interesting variety of rooms, grottoes, and sunlit patios beneath the ground.

    The underground architect’s first living quarters consisted of two rooms with some interesting features. He carved seats into the sides of the walls and made notches to hold shelves. Skylight openings above each room let in the natural light and air. In wintertime, they were covered with glass to keep out the rain.

    Eventually, he constructed a more elaborate apartment that included two bedrooms and a living room, kitchen, chapel, library, and bathroom. He had a snugly recessed bed, a slide-away table to provide additional space, and two fireplaces. He built sliding windows in the kitchen and a half-wall picture window in one bedroom. He also made a “see through” or peephole so that if he heard someone coming, he could see in advance who it was.

    After Mr. Forestiere had lived in his home for some time, he planted flowers, vegetables, shrubs, vines, and trees in certain sections of his underground maze where they could receive the proper sunlight and air. He experimented with various sizes and styles of skylights for this purpose. Many of the trees were grown in planters placed in the center of the rooms and gardens.

    Some of the trees bear strange combinations of fruit, the result of Mr. Forestiere’s experimental grafting. His “Second Story Tree,” grown seven meters underground, produces seven different kinds of citrus fruit—navel and Valencia oranges, sweet and sour lemons, tangerines, grapefruits, and cheedro (a fruit native to Sicily). Other plants grown in the underground gardens include grape, wild mulberry, Chinese date, hibiscus, rose, date palm, avocado, almond, quince, strawberry bush, Bartlett pear, coronation pear, fig, Rose of Sharon, and loquat. There is also a carob tree, the beans from which flour and chocolate can be made.

    To obtain nourishment for his plants, Mr. Forestiere made many trips in his Model T Ford pickup to bring back the rich loam of ancient lakebeds 20 km. away. Water at the necessary levels was provided by a well and pump. Mr. Forestiere even constructed an aquarium for keeping goldfish and tropical fish, with places for watching them above and under the ground.

    In recent years, man has left the earth and walked on the moon. He has built submarines that became temporary homes beneath the surface of the seas. A number of science-fiction books have been written about people who have lived underground. However, it is truly remarkable that this talented man, more than 50 years ago, built a home so livable, so interesting, and so rare that thousands of visitors come each year to marvel at his accomplishment.