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Twentieth Century Cavemen

It's too soon to know who the first real caveman (cavewoman?) of the 21st Century will be, but there were some fascinating cave characters during the 1900s. Four of the most colorful constitute a veritable tag-team spanning nearly the entire hundred years. They created unique homes in California, Utah, Arkansas, and Massachusetts. Three of these caverns are now open to the public, including one that was profiled on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

1908-1946

Baldassare Forestiere, a Sicilian immigrant, worked as a laborer digging subways in New York City before moving to Fresno, California, about 1905. He invested his savings in a 70-acre parcel he planned to make into an orchard. Unfortunately, the soil baked to a brick-like consistency in the scorching San Joaquin Valley sun. Fortunately, his experience with tunneling gave him the means to escape the torturing heat--and even to create fertile growing conditions on his barren plot.

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He began his new homestead by building a small (10-foot square) frame house where he could live while working on neighboring farms. Before long, he added to it by digging a basement to escape the searing (120-degree) summer heat. During the next four decades, he enlarged that basement into an underground hacienda sprawling across 10 acres. He created more than 50 rooms, each of which had an opening in the ceiling to admit light and draw in fresh air. Typically, he planted a fruit tree under the opening, where it would be watered by rainfall. In some of the rooms, he provided glass sheets to cover the roof opening during inclement weather.

Forestiere's home became increasingly elaborate as the years passed. Eventually, he added features like a library, a chapel, and an underground, glass-bottomed aquarium with a viewing room underneath it. Since 1954 the unique structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been operated as a public museum by Forestiere's heirs.

1940-1957

In 1940, Albert Christenson began drilling, blasting, and chipping into the sheer face of a barren cliff outside Moab, Utah. A dozen years and 50,000 cubic feet of sandstone later, he and his wife moved into their 14-room, 5000-square-foot cave home. Adjacent to the home was a diner-in-a-cave, complete with a gift shop, that supported the family, even after Albert died in 1957.

At the time of his death, Christensen was beginning to hew out a 100-foot-high stairway to the top of the cliff, where his wife planned to create, of all things, a rock garden. Both Albert and his wife, Gladys, who lived until 1974, are interred in an alcove inside the entrance to their former home. Nearby, the entrance is adorned with the face of Franklin Roosevelt, which Christensen carved into the wall's surface.

Albert Christensen's stepson still operates the Hole N' The Rock tourist attraction, featuring tours of the unusual home.

1983-1987

During the heat of the Cold War, John Hay spent four years creating a luxurious, blast-proof home in a spectacular natural cave near Parthenon, Arkansas. Hay, one of the cofounders of the Celestial Seasonings herbal tea company, could well afford to fashion a designer bomb shelter for his family. Acknowledging that "The architect was God," Hay cleaned out 5,500 square feet of the cavern and sealed the walls with layers of clear epoxy. Below the stalactite-studded ceilings, he laid polished tile floors. He outfitted the space with electricity and a central heating system.

Hay didn't intend to sit out the aftermath of a nuclear war in some cramped bunker. The living room, alone, encompasses 2000 square feet. Five bedrooms, five bathrooms, a sitting room, a game room, and a kitchen fill out the two-story "bungalow."

After the Cold War cooled, Hay felt more secure and put the elaborate cave dwelling up for sale. Several owners later, the Beckham Creek Cave Haven, once featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, now operates as a vacation rental property complete with private heliport.

1988-1998

The most recent member of the 20th Century's caveman tag-team is Thomas Johnson. It's hard to say whether he should be considered famous or infamous.

For a decade, this reclusive carpenter and painter lived a squatter's life in an underground home he dug on Massachusetts' idyllic Nantucket Island. Though small (about 150 square feet), Johnson's three-room domicile was comfortably outfitted with a queen-sized bed, kitchen appliances, a television set, and bathroom facilities including a shower. The floor was finished with Belgian stone, the walls were paneled with cedar, and the ceilings were equipped with skylights. Unfortunately, Johnson found that the local government and the property owner were not amused that he built his home without their knowledge or the requisite permits.

Tucked 8 feet below ground in a wooded area, Johnson's home was invisible for 10 years until a deer hunter happened to stumble on a vent pipe sticking up out of the ground. After tending to the cut on his leg, he reported the offending device to the local police. At least four law enforcement agencies banded together to flush the hermit permanently from his home.

Undaunted, Johnson planned to move on. "I've got a cliff swelling in the Catskills and a bunker near a waterfall in Pennsylvania," he told a reporter for Outside magazine. "I can carve a place into the woods, and you'd never know it was there."


Unless otherwise attributed, all SubsurfaceBuildings.com content is Loretta Hall, 2000-2005.

 

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