Sally Szwed

Between Utility and Folly: On Forestiere’s Underground Gardens

This thesis closely examines the life’s work of Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere - a forty year subterranean undertaking in Fresno, California known posthumously as “The Forestiere Underground Gardens”. Forestiere’s ambitious endeavor began in the early 1900s when, after elf a decade of manual labor in the underground aqueducts of Boston and Manhattan, he relocated to Fresno and purchased 70 acres of land, which quickly proved to consist of a thin layer of unusable soil over hardpan rock. What began was a practical escape from the relentless Fresno summer heat - often reaching well over 100 degrees - ultimately became an ongoing production that resulted in approximately one running mile of hand-carved underground tunnels, and nearly one hundred chambers, courtyards and living spaces. For all of its innovative structural features and unique aesthetic play of dark and light, earth and air, Forestiere’s intricate grotto is rarely acknowledged within the historical dialogues of architecture, art, or cultural anthropology. This thesis investigates this often-sensationalized work as an effort that extends far beyond the common interpretations that have underwritten limiting categorizations within the realms of Outsider art, roadside curiosities, and romantic folklore.

This thesis asserts that beyond the conspicuous ambitions and achievements of Forestiere’s work, its true meaning and historical interest reside between its contradictory signifiers. For the purpose of this project, four oppositional sets of descriptors - Italian/American, Labor/Leisure, Public/Private, and Modern/Anti-modern are examined, not in an effort to place the project within a particular dialogue, but instead to search for its meaning within its complexities and paradoxes. This thesis argues against the restricting classifications in which Forestiere’s work is typically placed not by contending with them directly, but rather by forming a multifaceted interpretation of his practice that pulls from the ambiguity found between its conflicting categorizations.