Built in 1874 and embellished with gingerbread trimmings and a wrought-iron gate, Mark Carbon's Uptown house typifies Victorian architecture. Carbon designed the front and rear gardens in the manner of the era as well, with delphinium, foxglove, larkspur and climbing roses. But what really makes Carbon happy is the appreciation his home and garden garners.
"I usually have the garden immaculate and loaded with flowers so people see that when they pass by during Mardi Gras," says Carbon, a pediatric emergency room doctor at Children's Hospital who lives near the St. Charles Avenue parade route.
The seeds of Carbon's passion for gardening were planted early. His grandmother was an avid gardener. When he was in the eighth grade, Carbon began gardening and doing odd jobs for a British woman whose 12 acres of land included an English garden. When Carbon purchased his home in 1995, creating a garden was a priority. He designed, installed and tends the garden himself. Two years ago, he became a certified master gardener through the Louisiana Master Gardener program offered by the LSU AgCenter and last summer, he attended a two-week course at Montreal's International Florist Academy and School.
"As a kid, I used to say one day I'd always have fresh flowers in my house," he says. " I garden year round."
In the front of the house, Carbon created a boxwood parterre, painstakingly laying it out with strings and stakes so every angle was neat and precise. He changes the parterre with seasonal annuals three or four times a year and plants flowers and leafy greens around the edges of the fence and yard. The back yard, described by a nephew as the "gypsy garden," is filled with potted plants. Carbon recently added a chicken coop he designed. For Carbon, collecting eggs from a backyard chicken is familiar as well as in step with today's health-conscious home-garden movement and his Paleo diet. One of six children, he grew up in Mandeville, where his family kept chickens, cows and pigs, had a catfish pond, rode horses and enjoyed an abundance of outdoor space.
Carbon's aesthetic sense, on the other hand, is very different from the suburban surroundings of his youth. He grew up in a 1970s brick house, but has an affinity for old houses and weathered patinas. He prefers the beauty of peeling plaster over new sheetrock. "When I walked in the house, I knew I didn't want to destroy it," he says. "I loved the house the way it was."
He removed the wallpaper himself and scraped the original plaster walls with a razor, leaving them with an aged, Old World look. He renovated the small kitchen and laid new marble tile in the bathroom, sheet-rocked several rooms damaged by Hurricane Katrina, painted some of the trim and windows, bricked the garden paths and replaced the light fixtures.
"I guess some people come into the house and think I'm in the middle of working on it," Carbon says, noting that he likes the worn appearance of the water stains on the ceiling and purposely hasn't done away with them.
A serendipitous series of events led Carbon to the house, and he is protective of its heritage and character. "I was a second-year (medical) resident and I wasn't looking for a house," he recalls. Carbon learned about the property from a coworker who happened to live in a sister cottage next door (both, Carbon says, were built by the same man for his two daughters). The previous owner, a doctor, had become ill and the co-worker asked Carbon if he would be interested if the house came up for sale. Carbon met the family, fell in love with the place and was offered a bargain price. "They took me through the house and told me stories," he says. "I was there for hours. It was like they really wanted me to have the house."
Carbon's appreciation for the gracefully eroded style presented in Richard Sexton's 1993 book Elegance and Decadence is obvious throughout the house, which has 13-and-a-half-foot ceilings and is home to a wealth of religious art, largely collected from Bush Antiques. His love of collecting, like his passion for gardening, began at an early age. He was a teenager when he began collecting Fiestaware and 20 when he acquired his first beveled mirror. He also owns dozens of cobalt blue medicine and perfume bottles, antique and vintage pottery and a significant collection of contemporary art by Louisiana artists including James Michalopoulos, David Harouni, Robert Gordy, Douglas Bourgeois and Jacqueline Bishop. Among his most prized works are paintings and pottery by his late mother Beryl Carbon, who started college at age 50 and attended classes with her son.
"When I first started collecting, I used to go to flea markets and garage sales," Carbon says. "It was a great way to learn about things. It was an educational experience."
Today, he frequents auctions and has made some incredible buys considering the gallery prices of comparable works by the same artists.
"I don't like things too clean and crisp," says Carbon, pointing out that the only new furnishings are the den's velvet sofa and pair of slipper chairs. "New things can look dated after 10 or 20 years. Antiques are ageless. They're never outdated."
Over time, he has organized his collections by room: religious art and artifacts, including an altar from France in the hall, which feels like a chapel; contemporary local art in the den; beveled mirrors in the bathroom; and stacks of Fiestaware in the kitchen.
During Carnival season, Carbon adds a display of giant papier mache flowers made by former float designer Brian Bush to the house's facade. Last year, neighbors convinced him to leave the whimsical blossoms in place well after Mardi Gras — Hurricane Isaac finally compelled him to take them down — and an artist who sells her work in Jackson Square captured the scene in an original drawing now made into prints.
More than a century and a quarter after the house was built, it's still turning the heads of neighbors, artists and passersby. Carbon hopes future generations also preserve its history and its horticulture. "It's important to me that it stays just the way it is," he says. "It's lasted this long almost untouched."