Orchids and industry thrived side-by-side
in Berkeley

Daniella Thompson

John A. Carbone (McCullagh photo courtesy of Louise Colombatto)

Cattleya J.A. Carbone (DK Images, 2007)

18 September 2007

At the turn of the last century, wharves, lumber mills, farms, breweries, tanneries, and Victorian residences dotted West Berkeley. The largest employer south of University Avenue was the Standard Soap Company, which had occupied half a block between the bay shore and Third Street north of Allston Way since 1876.

The San Francisco earthquake and fire profoundly changed the area’s character, filling it with industrial plants. Across the railroad from Standard Soap, the Van Emon Elevator Company built a factory taking up a quarter of a block on the corner of Third Street and Allston Way. Incongruously, the adjacent property was the flower nursery of Joseph Antoine Boirard, a Frenchman who had lived at 2216 Fourth Street since 1892 or ’93 and would still be there in 1930.

Boirard was not the first nurseryman in the area. On the next block to the east, John Anthony Carbone (1865–1946) had been growing roses since 1888.

John A. Carbone (4th from right) and friends in front of unidentified house. (courtesy of Louise Colombatto)

Carbone, who would gain fame as the Orchid King of the West, was born in Turin, northern Italy. His father was a gardener, and young Giovanni worked with plants from an early age. In an interview he gave in 1937, Carbone said that he followed his older brother—also a horticulturist—to Chicago in 1883. Soon he was engaged to work on the estate of Lucien Scott in Leavenworth, Kansas. A banking, coal, and railroad tycoon, Scott bought the house—now home of the Leavenworth County Historical Society—in 1882 for $5,200 and spent $50,000 on turning it into a mansion. When Scott sold the estate in 1887, Carbone said, he moved to New York City and worked in Central Park. He neglected to mention that while in Kansas, he was a partner in a flower shop called Carbone and Monti.

John Carbone lived at 2200 Fifth St. (right) from the mid-1890s until 1904. It remained part of the nursery and was eventually sold to Cyril and Anita Warren. (Ormsby Donogh files, BAHA archives)

Having heard enticing tales of California, Carbone went west and landed in Berkeley. He was first listed in the directory in 1889 as nurseryman, resident at Allston Way between Fourth and Fifth streets. By 1892, he had bought three lots on the Corner of Fifth Street and Allston Way, which were registered in the name of Margaret B. Carbone, believed to have been the first of his three wives.

Practically nothing is known about Margaret Carbone. John Carbone was already divorced in 1900, but both he and Margaret may have lived under the same roof at 2200 Fifth Street until 1903 or ’04, when John built a new house at 2216 Fifth Street. Margaret maintained her residence in the original house until 1909 and her ownership of the three lots until 1911 or so.

John Carbone in his carnation greenhouse on Fifth St., c. 1910 (courtesy of Louise Colombatto)

Why the Carbones divorced is not clear, but John Carbone’s roving eye might have played a role in the separation. In 1902, Carbone married Aurelia Sturla Cassinelli, who was divorced in 1900 by her first husband, Giovanni Cassinelli, also a gardener, on grounds of desertion.

In its early years, the Carbone nursery specialized in roses and chrysanthemums. As carnations became fashionable, Carbone made them his specialty. The 1903 Sanborn fire insurance map labeled the business West Berkeley Rose Nursery. At the time, it occupied seven lots between Fourth and Fifth Streets. In a southwestern corner of the nursery, one small greenhouse contained a large heater. This may have been the kernel of what would become the largest orchid nursery on the West Coast.

Carbone tends to his orchids (courtesy of Louise Colombatto)

In 1937, Carbone told an interviewer that he had become fascinated with the idea of importing and growing orchids a few years before the San Francisco fire. By then, he was prosperous enough to undertake such an expensive enterprise, which could at times require an outlay of several thousand dollars for a single plant. In 1917, he would make news by selling a Brassocattleya he had grown from seed and named Queen of California for the record sum of $2,500. The buyer was Charles M. Ward of Eureka, known at the time as the “Tulip Baron of Humboldt County.”

Carbone’s growing prosperity was evidenced by the land he had accumulated. Like his friend and neighbor Simone Marengo—the founder of the West Berkeley Macaroni Factory who had increased his holdings on Sixth Street immediately after the earthquake—Carbone owned by 1907 seven lots on his block, not counting the three lots still owned by Margaret Carbone and occupied by his nursery.

John Carbone, his son Melvin (in apron), gardener Modesto Lamperti, and daughter Louise at 2216 Fifth Street (courtesy of Louise Colombatto)

No complete photograph remains of the Carbone home at 2216 Fifth Street, long since demolished. Like most of the houses in the neighborhood, it was a two-story Victorian, although the prevailing home-building fashions in other parts of Berkeley at the time tended to Colonial Revival or Craftsman. In this house Aurelia gave birth to Carlo (1904), Melvin (1905), Inez (1908), and John, Jr. (1910).

Carlo and Melvin Carbone, c. 1911 (courtesy of Louise Colombatto)

The Carbone boys were trained early to lend a hand in the nursery, and several gardeners employed by Carbone usually lived with the family. One of these was John’s elderly uncle Carlo Dughera, who from 1907 until 1914 and again from 1915 until his death in 1924 resided and worked with the Carbones.

At the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, the Carbone exhibit, showing off more than 80 orchid varieties, was judged Best in Show. In addition to the gold medal for overall exhibit, Carbone received four first prizes for individual orchid cultivars. He would continue exhibiting at all the major horticultural shows over the next thirty years, consistently winning top honors.

Carbone in a WWI Red Cross parade (courtesy of Louise Colombatto)

As Carbone’s prestige grew, he became active in civic affairs, rubbing shoulders with Berkeley’s most important citizens. When the Chamber of Commerce moved into its new quarters in June 1913, Carbone contributed flowers for the opening reception. In 1917, when the American Red Cross mounted a nationwide campaign to raise a 100-million-dollar war fund, Carbone was one of the vice-presidents in the Berkeley effort alongside leading figures such as Benjamin Ide Wheeler, mayor Samuel C. Irving, Frank M. Wilson, John Hinkel, Stephen J. Sill, Redmond C. Staats, Duncan McDuffie, Bernard Maybeck, David P. Barrows, and August Wollmer.

Ulrich Brunner rose (Schmid Gartenpflanzen)

An undated newspaper article reported that Carbone had given the City of Berkeley 800 Ulrich Brunner rose plants, “to be used in such manner as the park commission directs.”

Amid the universal acclaim, one person was not altogether delighted with John Carbone: his wife Aurelia. On 13 April 1924, the Oakland Tribune reported, “After a court battle lasting most of the day, during which florists from Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda were in attendance, Mrs. Aurelia Carbone was granted temporary alimony of $275 pending the trial of her divorce suit against John Carbone, ’orchid king’ of Berkeley.”

It wasn’t until 21 November of that year that the suit was tried and its cause came to light. Mrs. Carbone accused her 59-year-old husband of dallying with his stenographer. The marriage was dissolved, and Mrs. Carbone moved to an apartment on Dowling Place with her two younger children.

John Carbone was married a third time, but not to his stenographer. His best friend, Simone Marengo, was widowed in 1922, and three years later married Maria Barbieri, a woman nearly 30 years his junior who had recently arrived from Italy. At the Marengo house, Carbone saw the photo of a young woman—Maria’s friend in Italy—and initiated a correspondence with her, eventually paying her way to Berkeley as his fianc�e.

Francesca Bertuzzo (1898–1957), the daughter of Italians who had migrated to Brazil in the 19th century, was born on a coffee plantation in Itapira, S�o Paulo. Having returned to Italy, the family was living in the Ligurian port town of La Spezia, where Francesca ran a laundry whose main client was the navy. This curriculum vitae apparently was insufficiently exotic for the Oakland Tribune, which featured a photo of the bride on 7 April 1928, describing her as the daughter of a Brazilian orchid collector.

Francesca and Louise Carbone at 571 Woodmont Ave., 1939 (courtesy of Louise Colombatto)

Francesca and John Carbone produced one child, Louise Eliza, who was born in February 1929, on the same day that her father purchased three acres for a new nursery on Woodmont Avenue, overlooking Wildcat Canyon.

The Carbone nursery in the late 1930s (McCullagh photo courtesy of Louise Colombatto)

By 1929, West Berkeley was no longer a suitable place for growing prize orchids. A block to the west on Third Street, the Solano Iron Works, the John Lucas Paint & Varnish Works, and the Oakland Furnace & Foundry Company were polluting the air. Carbone leased his Fifth Street facility to the C. & A. Warren Nursery and decamped for Woodmont Ave., where two notable iris specialists—horticulturist Carl Salbach and U.C. professor Sydney Bancroft Mitchell—were already established.

Carl Salbach and John Carbone showing off their prize blooms, with Louise Carbone acting as referee, early 1930s. (McCullagh photo courtesy of Louise Colombatto)

The family continued living at 2216 Fifth Street until 1937, when contractor Giovanni Battista Faramia built them a Mediterranean-style house at 571 Woodmont Avenue. The house still stands, although it’s been remodeled and enlarged twice by subsequent owners.

571 Woodmont Avenue (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007)

When John Carbone died at the age of 80, he was honored by the city council and the Rotary Club. Among his honorary pall bearers were city manager Gerrit Vander Ende and fire chief William Meinheit. Exactly a week after his death, his son Melvin was killed in a car crash. Thereafter, John, Jr. managed the nursery until his retirement in 1959, when the business was taken over by the youngest child, Louise Carbone Colombatto, and Melvin’s son, Mel Jr.

With demand for cut flowers steadily declining, greenhouses showing their age, and heating bills soaring, the family decided to close the nursery. The land was sold to a developer and subdivided for house lots.

Remaining are the showy cultivar Cattleya J.A. Carbone and numerous hybrids developed from it by several generations of horticulturists.

This article was published in the Berkeley Daily Planet on 21 September 2007.


Copyright © 2007–2022 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.