On Saturday, Long Island Republicans called on the Biden administration to expel the potential residents of Killenworth, a palatial, Russian-owned estate in Glen Cove — and an alleged spy hub. (“One of the things that is most disconcerting is the fact that we have no idea what they’re doing behind these walls, what kind of nefarious activities they could be engaged in,” said Nassau County executive Bruce Blakeman over the weekend.) Since it was first purchased by the Soviet Union in 1946, the suburban compound has been a source of tension both geopolitical (Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro used it as a retreat) and local (it was once subject to a ban on free beach passes). A brief history of the rumored espionage mansion:
Country Life in America’s 1914 “House of the Year”
In 1897, Killenworth was just a big house. It was demolished in 1912 by George Dupont Pratt, son of Pratt University founder and oil industrialist Charles Pratt, and replaced by what can only be described as a bigger house. The new mansion — on 39.5 acres, containing 49 rooms, and featuring a swimming pool, a tennis court, multiple greenhouses, a garage, and gardens tended by 50 gardeners — was named Country Life in America magazine’s “House of the Year” in 1914. In the accompanying profile, Pratt told the magazine that “if he were building again he would have no change to make in the house.” This impressed the publication, which went on to note that “such an expression of satisfaction takes on a greater significance when applied to a house the size of Killenworth.” For the honor of having a big house he felt very satisfied with, Pratt was awarded $1,000.
A “sumptuous” Soviet retreat
The U.S.S.R. bought the estate, intended as a retreat for aides and diplomats, in 1946. The New York Times write-up of the transaction referred to the grounds as “sumptuous.” As the New York Post reported this week, Khrushchev was met during a visit in the 1960s with sprawling protests and signs reading “Pig Fat Murderer” and “Chubby Russian Hangman.”
A former Glen Cove mayor told Newsday that he remembers the event from his childhood. “People lined the streets,” he said. “They were throwing tomatoes at the limos. People were not happy at the time that he was coming in there.” (A photo of Khrushchev at Killenworth, staring blankly at the property, can be found here.)
Glen Cove tax enemy No. 1 and the Long Island equivalent of sanctions
Killenworth, which is exempt under diplomatic consular status, doesn’t pay taxes. In 1982, according to the New York Times, Glen Cove’s mayor assessed that the city was losing “almost $25,000 a year in taxes, while the school district is losing $50,000 a year and Nassau County $25,000 a year.” The issue came to a head in the 1980s after federal officials claimed Russia was using the estate as a spy mansion.
“We don’t want to be subsidizing the Soviet’s espionage activities here in Glen Cove,” the mayor said, and the Glen Cove City Council voted to revoke the Russians’ free beach passes and discounted tennis and golf course permits. One dissenting member of the council called the move “petty.” A Glen Cove resident told the press at the time that they were pleased with the move because they claimed that when the Russians played tennis, they “would never throw your ball back if it accidentally went into their court.”
The State Department got involved, imploring Glen Cove’s mayor to lift the ban. A press officer with the Soviet Embassy told the Times that the feud was “absolutely unnecessary” and that Glen Cove had to decide if it would “abide by well-respected international law or not.” The Soviets retaliated by banning American diplomats from a beach near Moscow. The dispute ultimately ended a couple of years later, and the council lifted the ban.
Two Russian compounds in the suburbs, both alike in dignity
In 2016, Barack Obama shut down a different Russian compound on Long Island — this time in the village of Upper Brookville — in response to allegations of Russian interference in the election. The FBI, according to the Times, mistakenly announced it had shuttered Killenworth, which wasn’t true. It was simply the other Russian compound — the Norwich House that sits on 14 acres an 11-minute drive away.
It’s unclear how many people currently live there aside from a few Russian caretakers. It’s a mystery even to the city’s mayor. “My understanding is that they use it for the U.N. Ambassador,” she told Newsday in an email. “The Russian compound is still in use in Glen Cove. I do not know how many people live there or anything else about it but they are there.”
When asked for comment by the Post, a representative for the United Nations pretty much asked to be left out of it, saying, “This is really an issue between the Russian Mission to the U.N. and the U.S. authorities.”