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A '50s-Style Bungalow

The Combs furnished their 1920s Craftsman brick home with their collection of 1950s and '60s furniture and accessories, much of it from the now-demolished main library in Memphis.

By Michael Donahue, Scripps Howard News Service

Clay and Jessica Combs stopped house hunting after they saw the 1920s Craftsman brick, stone and stucco bungalow in midtown Memphis.

"It's just bizarre," said Jessica, 33. "We could not get this house out of our system once we saw it."

Now, it's furnished with the couple's collection of 1950s and '60s furniture and accessories, much of it from the now-demolished main library. Clay, 33, worked at the library for many years.

Clay and Jessica met at Rhodes College in Memphis while competing for the same scholarship. They married in 1998 and set up housekeeping in Clay's wood-frame bungalow. They discovered they shared a love of 1950s furniture.

"I've always liked '50s stuff," Jessica said. "Before I could drive, my mother used to take me down to Flashback (a vintage clothing and furniture store) just to look around and buy vintage jewelry."

"I like clean lines," Clay said. "The mid-century aesthetic just works for me."

"I like the clean lines, too, but I also find a sense of humor in a lot of the '50s stuff," Jessica said. "Look at the sofa there, the way that the arms just kind of wing out. It's just kind of crazy and wacky. And I love the Sputniky designs and the crazy little turn of the television sets and the fiberglass lampshades. I just think the '50s stuff was fun."

They noticed the house while driving around. "Frankly, it was over the price range we'd set, but we kept driving past it," Jessica said.

Clay finally went inside when the house was open for inspection. "It was in very good shape," he said. "Nice details. Nice moldings. Big, wide porch. We liked the story-and-a-half floor plan."

"Once we actually ran the numbers, we realized the difference in the payment wasn't terrible," Jessica said. "Compared to the others that we looked at, and the work they were going to need, it was sort of a no-brainer. It was in fantastic shape."

In May 2001 they moved in. "We had paintbrushes out the second night," Jessica said.

Their color sense was drastically different from the previous owners. "The back bedroom was Crayola green," Jessica said. "It was so green it made the whole house glow."

"It was like, 'Welcome to Three Mile Island,' " Clay said. "That was the first room we painted."

Several rooms were still empty after they moved in their furniture. "But that's good," Clay said. "That's fun. We had to keep our eyes (open) for stuff and buy new stuff when we saw the opportunity."

One opportunity came when the library moved. Clay and Jessica bought two truckloads of furniture, which included late 1950s-early '60s sofas, chairs and shelves. They recovered the blonde walnut sofas and chairs.

"It's solid as a rock," Jessica said. "That's what our upholsterer said."

A set of bookshelves from the library is now used to hold CD players.

"It was taller, but my dad and I cut it down," Clay said.

A 5-foot-tall, 60-drawer card catalog in the living room is used to store CDs.

They were in the right place at the right time for other purchases. They bought eight 1950s lamps when an antique store was going out of business.

Clay got two Steelcase office desks and a filing cabinet and a General Fireproofing desk chair from an old insurance company. "I was just driving by and they literally had a sheet of butcher paper out front spray-painted 'Desks $20.' I thought, 'I can imagine how that building is furnished. They're going to have some Steelcase desks in there.' "

Clay is fascinated with metal office furniture. "It's just cool. I love mid-century everything, but especially office furniture. Starting in the '20s with the skyscrapers, they went to metal furniture because it was fireproof, essentially."

Indicating one of the desks, he said, "You'll find these refurbished in tony shops in New York for $1,500 to $2,500."

Their love of the 1950s and '60s is reflected in other pieces.

Dining room furniture includes an old stereo console, which the couple uses as a sideboard. The chandelier is a three-globe Bakelite and chrome fixture that dates to the 1950s.

The front-porch iron chairs were covered with fabric they bought on eBay. "They were old fiberglass drapes with a funky '50s pattern on them," Clay said.

(Contact Michael Donahue of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., at

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