Five years ago, journalists Roberta Baskin and Jim Trengrove, who built careers covering (and uncovering) fraudsters and politicians, began discussing the next stage of their lives. Trengrove was content to stay in the 2,600-square-foot Colonial in upper Northwest Washington where they had finished raising two daughters. Baskin, however, dreamed about moving to something smaller and farther downtown, in a walkable neighborhood close to a Metro station. Neither even considered relocating to a larger place outside the city.
Then they read a 2014 Washington Post story about Alvictus, a 4,654-square-foot home in a secluded location near Manassas, Va. It had spectacular views of Lake Jackson, dramatic mid-century architecture and a tantalizing Cold War pedigree as a reputed CIA safe house. They drove 40 miles to Prince William County, took a one-hour tour and signed a contract on the spot.
“ ‘CIA safe house’ was all we had to hear,” jokes Baskin, 64, of their $740,000 retreat. The award-winning investigative reporter for local and network television is now researching Alvictus as a 20th-century stash-and-crash pad for defecting Soviet spies — despite the CIA’s refusal to confirm or deny the rumors.
“Please feel free to say CIA declined to comment,” agency spokesman Jonathan Liu suggested in a recent email response to queries from The Washington Post.
Of course, the CIA connection was not the overriding lure for the couple. There was the dramatic modernist architecture: a great room boasting 18-foot ceilings and walls of lake-facing windows, an intricate banister and floating staircase connecting the great room to the upper level, and a parallel balcony and walls shielding private quarters from public view. Two acres of woodland offered serene seclusion, Lake Jackson promised perennial eye candy, and 100 feet of private shoreline plus a dock, 82 steps below the house, beckoned to those inclined toward fishing and boating.
“It’s like being on permanent vacation,” says Trengrove, 63, who spent 21 years at “PBS NewsHour,” mostly as Capitol Hill senior producer.
Safe house or no, Alvictus comes with a deliciously checkered past. It was built by Victor Purse, a State Department official whose happiest years in Foggy Bottom were the three he spent as deputy and acting chief of protocol during President Dwight Eisenhower’s first term.
Purse was charming, smart and efficient enough to have impressed Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Saudi Arabia’s King Saud, among others. But when Purse’s first wife accepted Saud’s gift of a $3,000 Oldsmobile convertible in 1957 (she later refused to return it and they divorced), Purse was forced out of his protocol post. Though it was legal at the time for officials at State to accept such pricey largesse, protocol chief Wiley Buchanan resented his younger, popular deputy, whom he found brash and undiplomatic. Purse, in turn, found Eisenhower’s political appointee downright stiff.
Two years later, far from the limelight but still at State — and having survived a 1958 suicide attempt — Purse, along with his second wife, Alice, bought a log cabin and 18 choice lots in Charles Alpaugh’s development on Lake Jackson. The reluctant seller was Luther Alpaugh, a son of the developer, who needed cash to fight a murder charge. Purse promised to sell back the trophy property should Luther Alpaugh go free but reneged after the acquittal.
It is not known how much Purse paid Alpaugh for the land and cabin, says Dwayne Moyers, a Prince William police officer turned real estate agent who co-listed Alvictus in 2014 with his wife, Maryanne. Moyers spent weeks reading old news stories and interviewing relatives and friends of the Purses.
Alice Purse, who worked for what was then the Government Printing Office , had married Victor after becoming fabulously wealthy through a record multimillion-dollar legal settlement, the result of nearly being killed in an auto accident involving a Greyhound bus. And it was that money that likely allowed the couple to turn the cabin, originally called Happy House, into their singular dream home, Moyers writes on his realty website.
“I believe Alpaugh offered Purse up to $30,000 to buy the land back. But Purse was wise enough not to sign an agreement, informing Alpaugh he couldn’t have the land back at any price,” says Moyers. A nasty feud ensued.
“When Purse was building the massive extension to the property, Alpaugh used heavy fireworks repeatedly to drive workers off the site by firing mortars across the water as the retaining wall was under construction,” Moyers says. Purse fired back in a mini-war that lasted two weeks.
The never-modest Victor named this bucolic fiefdom Alvictus for Alice and himself, and shaped the fishpond out front into a P, for Purse, visible from the commuter helicopters he envisioned using once he’d installed a helipad to beat rush-hour traffic. (Never happened.) Then he set about sharing the compound’s charms.
“Victor Purse built Alvictus for entertaining foreign dignitaries and government officials with influence. His lakefront home became well known for its parties and networking opportunities during weekend getaways,” writes Moyers.
The Washington Star covered a 1959 party where Rep. John J. Rooney, a Brooklyn Democrat who chaired the House subcommittee that controlled the State Department budget, christened a five-ton ornamental water wheel Victor trucked from a defunct mill to the terrace below his 13-foot-deep pool.
Moyers also turned up stories from locals about Cold War-era “strangers with foreign accents” shopping in Manassas, lending credence to the widespread belief that Alvictus was used as a Cold War safe house.
“You can consider it verified,” declares Vince Houghton, the International Spy Museum’s historian and curator, about the rumor. Houghton, whose doctorate focused on the history of intelligence, says he discussed Alvictus with a few former Russian and American operatives, whom he declined to identify.
And consider this description of a safe house, unnamed but unmistakably Alvictus, which surfaced in a 2015 spy novel titled “A Very British Ending.”
“It was the CIA’s best safe house: totally isolated in hilly woodland, but only a forty-minute drive from Langley,” wrote the English author, Baltimore-born Edward Wilson. “The house had a swimming pool, lake frontage and an outdoor bar and barbecue. But what Angleton” — that would be James Jesus Angleton, the agency’s real-life chief of counterintelligence from 1954 to 1975 —“liked most about it were the spectacular azaleas, which were bursting into full bloom. The house had been built in the 1950s using local stone and wood. There was nothing vulgar about it, except a water feature with Koi carp and a statue of Pan — but the overriding aesthetic style was unashamed American assertive.”
Despite those spot-on details, Wilson, who now lives in England, never saw the property. “My only insider source on Alvictus was my own mother, now long dead, who was absolutely mad about azaleas (and cultivated them), and told me about the place. But what she knew and how she knew it is long dead,” Wilson says via email.
She lived and worked in Baltimore, so, “If she ever visited, it would have been between 1965 and 1968, when I was a student at the University of Virginia. Unfortunately, she had a secretive side which she never shared.”
In 1960, a year after building the house, Alice and Victor divorced. He moved to Florida, where his third and fourth marriages failed. Alice was still living at Alvictus when the original cabin-turned-guest-suite was used as a safe house. Victor arranged the CIA lease, his granddaughters and another relative told Moyers, who wrote, “Family [visitors] were sometimes met with men armed with rifles walking the grounds and rooftop of Alvictus between 1965-1968.”
Alice retired from the GPO and moved back to her native Wisconsin. In 1983, Victor sold Alvictus to Katherine Peters, the second of its five owners. Peters lived there with daughter Eowana Jordan and son-in-law Lenny Krieg for 11 years, and saw Purse socially.
“Victor told my mother and me that it was used as a CIA safe house during the JFK days,” says Jordan, who describes Purse as cocky, abrupt, charming and outrageous. “But he adored and loved Alvictus,” she says.
So do Baskin and Trengrove. Urban and suburban amenities pale when viewed from this exurban paradise, and neither minds the hour-long car or train ride necessary when they work in the city — Baskin for the global higher-learning platform AIM2Flourish and Trengrove as a communications consultant.
Despite differences of scale and layout between their D.C. and Virginia homes, all their furniture, rugs and art fit seamlessly at Alvictus. Decorating involved little more than painting several dark rooms lighter and arranging their possessions. Their daughters, Chelsea Trengrove, 28, a neuroscientist who consults from Boston with companies on Food and Drug Administration compliance, and Vanessa Trengrove, 25, a New York City documentary film editor for Oscar-winning directors, delight in their water-view bedrooms and try to visit monthly.
“Buying Alvictus was totally spontaneous,” says Baskin. “If we really thought it through, we wouldn’t have done it, and we are so glad we did. Almost two years into it, we still wake up and say, ‘Wow.’ ”
The couple so relished the Alvictus reputation as a no-tell motel for high-value KGB turncoats that they engaged in an act of mischievous carpentry when they had a tall bookcase built into one end of a guest room. On the far left of the middle shelf stands an old clothbound copy of “Basic Marketing, a Managerial Approach.”
Press the spine and — voila! — the whole unit swings inward, revealing ... clothes, shoes and scarves.
The secret passageway is a sight gag: Rather than provide an escape for Kremlin defectors, it simply connects two bedrooms, via Roberta Baskin’s closet.
Washington journalist Annie Groer writes widely about design, politics and culture.
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