By: Denise Simon | FoundersCode.com
This 45 acre compound in Maryland was purchased in 1972. This is used as a safe hour and listening post along with database and communications systems.
WashingtonLife: Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov and his wife Svetlana continue the Russian tradition of summer escapes and family bonding on Maryland’s Eastern Shore
Russians cherish the dacha, a word meaning summer house or cottage. During summers and weekends, millions of them leave the stress of congested city life for the solace of a cabin or house in the countryside. “It’s a Russian tradition,” explains Yuri Ushakov, ambassador of the Russian Federation. “You will find Moscow empty on Saturdays and Sundays, even in winter. A dacha is a good place to spend time outdoors with family and friends.”
Since arriving in Washington eight years ago, the Ushakov and his wife Svetlana Ushakova have kept up this tradition on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. They spend nearly every weekend and longer stretches during the summer at the embassy’s three-story brick dacha fronting the Chester River. While the 1920s Georgian-style house doesn’t exactly look Russian, it offers the couple the same pleasures as their dacha outside of Moscow, especially the chance to spend time with their 10-year-old grandson Misha, grilling shashlik (Russian shish kebob), with friends, or relaxing in the bania, Russian for steam room.
“Because we have such a hectic life in Washington, we need a place to hide for awhile,” says Ushakova on a recent tour of the dacha, accompanied by Simon, her west highland terrier. “This is the best spot for really being alone with your family. Of course, we entertain friends, colleagues and officials here but not as much as we do in the city. We prefer to host small gatherings where you can really talk, exchange opinions and enjoy each other’s company.”
Strolling the grounds of this park-like setting, lushly planted with magnolias, cypress and boxwood, it’s easy to understand why these diplomats treasure their getaway. It is located right on the waterfront with all the amenities of a resort. Within a short walk from the main house are a swimming pool and cabana, tennis court and waterfront dock. While the 57-yearold ambassador’s wife likes the seclusion of the pool near the river, her husband, a fit 60-yearold, prefers swatting balls on the tennis court, boating on the river or cycling around the grounds with his grandson in tow. The couple can also be found browsing the antique shops in nearby Centreville, Chestertown and Easton, looking for the porcelains that Ushakova collects or the old books treasured by Ushakov, who also collects red wine.
Some of the finds from those trips, along with a phone from a Soviet submarine, adorn the one-room “hunting lodge” where the couple hosts special visitors. “No one really hunts but that’s what we call it,” Ushakova says with a laugh. This shingled shed with its outdoor fireplace, one of many outbuildings on the property, is tucked off the tree-lined lane leading to the house. Inside, a long wooden table under timber ceiling beams and glass beer steins hanging from a rack create the feeling of a rustic pub. A colorful mural of Russian and American sailors clinking their beer glasses decorates the back wall; the Russian wears a naval hat inscribed with “Ushakov.”
The lodge is one of several recent renovations to the sprawling estate once known as Pioneer Point Farm. The current 45 acres originally belonged to a 700-acre land grant from Britain in the 1600s. In 1702, the farm was purchased by Richard Tilghman and remained in his family until 1925 when it was sold to John J. Raskob, an executive with Dupont and General Motors. Tombstones dating from the early 1800s still remain on the property, but the first wood-framed dwelling on the estate is long gone. Raskob built the current brick mansion where the front door knocker, inscribed with “Hartefield House,” bears the only witness to that original home. For his 13 children and their friends, he also constructed an equally grand, neighboring brick house, which is now being restored by the Russian government.
After Raskob died, the estate was sold to a succession of owners in the decades following World War II. The Soviet government purchased the two houses and surrounding land in 1972 and later obtained more acreage after a land swap with the State Department, which in return received property in Moscow. The deal, however, wasn’t initially well received by the locals who were worried about suspicious foreigners. “It was during the Cold War and people around here were afraid that the Russians would bring their battleships,” Ushakova says. “But then they realized that it wasn’t so bad because Russians started coming to the local shops to buy food and everything. They realized that there was no danger and saw that we took care of the house and property. Moreover, they realized that the Russians were friendly and hospitable.”
For more than two decades, the Eastern Shore property served as a dacha for Anatoly Dobrynin who was the Soviet ambassador during the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations until he returned to Moscow in 1986. Dobrynin preserved the Flemish-bond red brick and ornate painted ironwork of the Raskob mansion and kept many of the furnishings that came with the house. Fourteen rental cottages, some built in Finland and shipped to the site, were added for embassy staff.
Much of the original flavor of the house remains intact. The formal living and dining rooms flanking the wide center hall retain their teak floors, oriental carpets and impressive crystal chandeliers. An archway on one side of the living room leads to the walnut-paneled library where built-in shelves hold many of the ambassador’s favorite books. Off the other side, a glass-enclosed porch overlooks a brick-walled courtyard where a fountain gurgles quietly. A two-story screened porch, set behind the rear colonnade of the house, provides a river view between nearly century-old boxwoods.
As an offshoot of the embassy, the dacha is frequently used for official functions. Every May, the entire staff is invited to celebrate Victory Day, a Russian holiday commemorating World War II, and on Labor Day, the Sailing Club of the Chesapeake arrives to enjoy an annual fete. “The main mission for us has been to keep the house and grounds alive,” Ushakov says.
On weekends, the couple prefers hosting smaller gatherings and house parties of no more than 10 people. Menus include fish freshly caught from the Chesapeake and salads tossed with lettuces, cucumbers and tomatoes picked from the vegetable gardens on the property. “People can relax and open up in way that they never do in the city,” Ushakova says. “A dacha is not just about entertaining. It’s about uniting people in a very spiritual way because here you are in harmony with nature. That’s why the dacha is so powerful for Russians.”
A painted mural of toasting Russian and American sailors decorates the rear wall of the rustic hunting lodge, a former outbuilding converted by the ambassador and his wife for entertaining.
NYT’s: The Soviet compound on Dosoris Lane, was the idea of Walter Green, chairman of the Harrison Conference Services, the parent concern, who invited his neighbors for the early-morning get-together.
Mr. Belonogov brought along two Soviet trade aides, Yuri D. Sherbena, president of the Amtorg Trading Company, and Dimitry A. Solovykn, deputy president of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Trade and Economic Council, and said that a number of Soviet products, including textiles, nickel, plywood and fertilizers, could be marketed here effectively.
Calling it ”most urgent” to start to move in the armaments race, Mr. Belonogov said: ”The more arms at our disposal, the less secure we are. Arms today are more sophisticated. As a result, all are becoming hostages of military technology.”
The chief delegate escorted the businessmen -all presidents or chief executive officers of major Long Island concerns – and a few journalists around the mansion, which was built by George DuPont Pratt, an heir to the Standard Oil fortune, in 1913. The Soviet Government bought the 49-room mansion and its 36 acres of choice property in the 1940’s, around the time of the formation of the United Nations, as a facility for its staff at the world organization, then headquartered at Lake Success.
Today, the compound, called Killenworth, is used as a weekend retreat for members of the Soviet Mission to the United Nations.
Austere and sparsely furnished, the mansion has only a few of the lush trappings associated with turn-of-the-century elegance on the North Shore. The chapel still has all its original woodwork and decorations, and the mansion’s fireplaces work, Mr. Belonogov noted. Many of the sconces, chandeliers and some furnishings remain intact from the early days. The rest, with modern plumbing and electricity, is basically functional.
”The property is very picturesque,” Mr. Belonogov said, ”and two families live here on a permanent basis. There is a swimming pool and facilities for sports.”
The businessmen did not get a chance to explore the grounds, which include a rose garden and Roman and Greek-style statuary, because of inclement weather, but the landscape appeared well gardened, lush and verdant, with bursts of early spring flowers.
Mr. Green of the Harrison center said he expected to have additional meeting with diplomats and business leaders.
Among those who toured the Soviet compound were Martin Hills, president of Venus Scientific; Mervin H. First of RFI; Daniel M. Healy, managing partner of Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co.; Harry Mariani, president of Villa Banfi; W.F. Kenny of Meenan Oil; Douglas Maxwell of Powers Chemco; Sal J. Nuzzo of Hazeltine;, Aneen Solomon of Jack LaLanne Management, and Harold Lazarus of the School of Business of Hofstra University.
Or is it this one?
The house in the foreground, on Fieldston Road in the Bronx, was long rumored among neighbors to be used by the government to spy on the taller building behind it, which is used to house Russian diplomats.Credit Ángel Franco/The New York Times
In real estate, the saying goes, location is key, and it is certainly true for the little white house at 5437 Fieldston Road in Riverdale.
In a world without global tensions and nuclear showdowns, this modest, single-family house in the Bronx might have enjoyed a perfectly neutral existence.
Instead it became infamous locally, gaining a reputation as a spy house because it is separated by a fence from the Russian Federation, which opened in 1974 as a diplomatic residence.
This unassuming house provided perhaps the best physical vantage point to the 20-story building on the property, which lies between Mosholu Avenue and Fieldston Road near 255th Street and is encircled by an imposing, spike-tipped fence.
Shortly after the Russian compound opened, the house was bought by a corporation, Van Cortland Realty, whose ownership was difficult to discern. Neighbors say they can never remember anyone living there – even up to the present day.
The property was maintained by a landscaper, and junk mail and circulars were presumably collected periodically, although none of about a dozen neighbors interviewed can recall how.
“I call it the mystery house,” said Mike O’Rourke, 86, who has been a doorman at Fieldston Manor, across the street from the house, for 20 years.
“I’ve never seen anyone go in or out,” Mr. O’Rourke said.
Herminio Sanes Jr., the superintendent at Fieldston Manor, said most neighbors assumed it was used by federal agents as a surveillance house to watch the Russian compound, which is now operated by Russia’s mission to the United Nations.
“Everyone always said it was an F.B.I. house,” said Mr. Sanes, who added that the most activity he ever spotted near the property were repair crews that seemed to constantly tend to the phone lines near the house.
“We used to always see men working on the telephone poles, and we used to say, ‘How many times can they possibly fix these lines?’” Mr. Sanes said.
But it appears this house of intrigue may be reborn as a house of worship. According to New York City finance records, the house has been purchased for $400,000 by the Talner Congregation Beth David. The congregation hopes to demolish the house and build a synagogue, according to New York City Department of Buildings officials.
Congregation officials did not return messages requesting comment, but Susan Goldy, a local real estate agent helping the congregation find temporary rental space, said she had discussed the sale with a congregation member.
“The congregation basically doesn’t even know who they bought the house from,” Ms. Goldy said. “The inside of the house looked as if it had never been lived in, and the lawyer for the seller who handled the closing never explained who the real owner was, beyond the corporate name.”
Two officers from Van Cortland Realty, a holding company that bought the house shortly after the compound opened, and which has a business address in Ellicott City, Md., near Washington, did not return phone calls.An F.B.I. spokesman in New York declined to comment about neighborhood rumors regarding the house. Officials of Russia’s United Nations mission also did not respond to a request for comment.
So while the truth of the 5437 Fieldston Road may never be known, its history as a local legend with spy-novel status seems worth summarizing.
In the early 1970s, as the Russian compound was being built, the modest house was sold several times between real estate holding companies.
Cold-war-spy story lines flew about the house, which looked about as nondescript as a man in a tan overcoat and sunglasses reading a newspaper in a spy movie.
Its vantage point overlooked huge satellite dishes mounted on a lower floor of the Russian Federation building. The blinds on the windows that faced the federation building always seemed closed.
Neighbors theorized that the house was used for camera surveillance and to monitor phone lines at the Russian Federation, but no one ever seemed to come or go. After snowstorms, the front of the house would remain covered in smooth white snow, with no footsteps, sometimes for weeks until the snow melted.
“It was well known that it was a government house, one of the agencies,” said a longtime resident on the block who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is a retired deputy inspector with the New York Police Department and he did not feel comfortable being revealed speaking about the topic.
Several residents of Fieldston Manor said it was common knowledge that F.B.I. agents worked out of an apartment in the complex that faces both the house and the compound.
“A lot of us spoke to the agents, and they did not hide who they were,” said William Nage, 60, a retired interior designer.
Workers would show up so often to climb a utility pole outside the house and work on the lines, it became a running joke among residents.
“We used to say, ‘At least we probably have better television reception than anyone else,’” Ms. Goldy said.
And even after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the house remained empty yet well maintained, Mr. O’Rourke said.
As he spoke he stopped a passing resident and asked, “What do you know about that white house across the street?”
“Oh,’’ the resident replied nonchalantly, “that’s a government house.”