In 1881, architect Theodore C. Link designed a home for his family. The house was at 5900 West Cabanne Place, in a fashionable and semi-rural two-block subdivision near the western edge of the city, a little north of Delmar and a little east of Skinker.
Link was living in that house when he designed his great masterpiece, St. Louis Union Station.
The neighborhood gradually deteriorated. Some of the grand old homes became boarding houses. Some crumbled entirely. In 1980 — 99 years after Link built his family home — West Cabanne Place was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. The nominating letter began, “West Cabanne Place is in the 5900 and 6000 block of Cabanne Avenue, at the end of a grim, gray street where the police come frequently, the prostitutes occasionally, and the building inspector as seldom as possible.”
Cole Bernaugh and Doris Bell arrived on the scene in 1990. Bell had found Link’s old house in a newspaper ad. She and Bernaugh went to look at it. His first thought was, “Why do we need all this?” The three-story house had five bedrooms and four bathrooms. That seemed a bit much for two people.
But after the owner told them the story of the house, Bernaugh was hooked. He had grown up in the Ville neighborhood. So he knew all about famous people. Arthur Ashe, Chuck Berry, Dick Gregory and Sonny Liston had come from the Ville. The thought of owning the home of a famous architect appealed to Bernaugh. He and Bell bought the house.
The exact sale price is unclear. Bernaugh said they paid $67,000 with $12,000 down and a five-year note for the rest. Bernaugh said they did not get a standard mortgage through a bank because he worked for himself in a cash business. He owned and operated Dr. Cole’s Home Repair & Tree Service.
Bell declined to talk with me. Online records said the price was $44,000.
Not that it matters. Bernaugh and Bell bought the house in October 1990.
Bell moved in. Bernaugh did not. Shortly after they bought the house, he got in trouble. His entrepreneurial spirit extended beyond home repairs and tree service.
“If you remember those days, marijuana was hard to get,” he told me. “The price was up. I liked to smoke it, so I started selling some.”
He said he got busted in a reverse sting in Oklahoma in November 1990. He said the feds got $201,817 and his RV. He got 122 months. He said he had enough money salted away that he was able to make payments on the house for his first four years in prison. He said he then ran out of money and Bell made the payments the final year.
He got out of prison after doing eight years and seven months.
He and Bell were no longer a couple. He said she had visited him for a while in prison but was not visiting at the end.
When he got out, he wanted to sell the house, but he said Bell refused. Or at least they couldn’t come to terms. He thought he deserved the greatest percentage of the proceeds because he had paid the most. But she had lived in the house. Shouldn’t that count for something? Plus, of course, he had the problem of proving he had made the payments while he was in prison. All in all, it was a mess.
He took out a couple of loans on the house and used those loans to buy and renovate another house in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of north St. Louis. It’s a nice place, but nothing historic.
Bernaugh got married in 2005. Not to Bell.
Finally, when Bell and Bernaugh could not come to an agreement on what to do with the house on West Cabanne Place, Bernaugh went to court to seek to force Bell to sell the house. That lawsuit began in 2009.
“The law is clear,” said Douglas McCloskey, Bernaugh’s attorney. “He had an absolute right to force a sale. The only question was what percentage of the proceeds he’d get.”
He wanted 80 percent.
On and on it went. A trial was scheduled for July 2011, but it was canceled when McCloskey and Chris Smith, Bell’s lawyer, had a dispute about a deposition. In March 2013, a judge ordered the house to be sold at auction, but the parties agreed to a voluntary sale. That fell through, according to McCloskey, when Smith dropped out.
“He vanished. He didn’t return phone calls. He didn’t answer correspondence,” said McCloskey. “I dealt with his brother for a while, but he finally said he couldn’t talk to me because he’s not a lawyer.”
I called the number McCloskey gave me for Smith’s brother. The man who answered said he wasn’t Smith’s brother, but he said Smith had had a stroke and would not be returning to the case.
In March of this year, a default judgment was issued in Bernaugh’s favor. Link’s old house will be sold at a sheriff’s auction at 10 a.m. Wednesday on the 11th Street side of the Civil Courthouse. A hearing will be held later to determine who gets what from the proceeds.