The Mansion That Microsoft Built

It's semi-official: The world's most celebrated, globally visited, never-lived-in mansion -- Bill Gates' monument to technology, architecture, and himself on the Medina, Wash. shores -- will be valued at $55.5 million if it is completed as planned late next year, and will cost Earth's richest private person $550,000 annually in taxes."That's got to be a record -- certainly for a family home of three," says a dazed official in the King County assessor's office, which recently completed another review of the 45,000-square-foot edifice -- including a $1 million underground parking garage for two dozen cars -- built on five levels above Lake Washington.The review is not yet completed, says the official who asked for anonymity, adding: "His yearly taxes will be about two or three times what many of us pay to buy a house." The assessor's office will make another review when the home is completed, perhaps next fall, to determine a final valuation. If there are more change orders and the house (actually five adjoining waterfront buildings on a terraced hillside) is significantly modified from its current plans, the 4.5-acre property's value could be closer to $60 million, says the official. In the past, construction workers have said delays and change orders -- sometimes involving ripping out unsatisfactory new work and replacing it with more new work -- ran up the house's price tag by more than $10 million.Under construction for six years this month, the home continues to rise along the lake slopes, looking more and more like a commercial resort complex. Constructed in part with special old-growth timbers from southwest Washington, the home features unique computer-run electronics. Lighting and music systems can follow Gates, wife, baby, and the help around the halls, and walls of video screens display art masterpieces. Besides guest and nanny quarters, the grounds will include an estuary, reception/entry pavilion, movie theater, beach pavilion, elevators, swimming pool, exercise area, up to 1,000 fir trees, and an arboretum of Northwest shrubbery.And even though it is not yet completed, Gates' home now has taken over the title of "Most Expensive Private Residence on the Lake" from the domicile of Microsoft co-founder, billionaire Paul Allen. Allen's three-story Mercer Island waterfront home, recently expanded to include a recreational complex and seven-car garage with its own lift and gas pump, is valued at a little more than $37.1 million. (But he also owns adjoining lots, which in an earlier assessment were deemed worth more than $67 million.)Among the lake mansion also-rans is the futuristic spread of Microsoft chief programmer Charles Simonyi, recently featured on the front page of The New York Times as typical of what the Times headlined the "Techno-Dwellings for the Cyber-Egos of the Mega-Rich." Simonyi's tilted, pointed-edged mansion, located on a prominent point on Medina's south lakeside, is fully maintained by computers and viewed by architectural critics as either a contemporary Taj Mahal or a water-treatment plant. County records show the 17,000-square-foot, four-story, 13-room glass-and-steel home has seven baths, a 60-foot glass-enclosed pool, and a museum structure. It has been valued at almost $20 million.This nesting of wealthy nerds, particularly Gates, has obviously brought fortune to others as well -- construction companies, decorators, designers, suppliers -- but also has created a cottage industry of oglers. Lake tour boats make regular passes along Gates' waterfront, for example, and a legion of photographers and reporters (including this one) have mined the site for the latest signs of Hearst/San Simeon-like excesses from Fortune magazine's favorite college-dropout billionaire. But the manse-in-progress may have brought the most fame -- albeit little fortune -- to two enterprising Kirkland PR types."We figure we've helped generate about 300 newspaper articles," says Paul Owen, vice president of MorseMcFadden Communications. "CNN has covered us, ABC, The Wall Street Journal -- The New York Times ran a blurb."The unkept secret of their success is an Internet Web site, Walls 96 -- The House That Windows Built -- launched about this time last year, a month after Windows 95 was introduced at the big Redmond blowout. Owen, along with MorseMcFadden CEO Bob Morse and president Dan McFadden, came up with the site as a way to promote their public relations business, and it's now drawing more than 4,000 hits a week from around the world."We've become one of the first places people check in with when they're doing a story on the house," says Owen. The Web site (www.morsepr.com) features photos of the mansion, updated about once a month when Owen, Morse, and McFadden jump into a boat at Moss Bay and cruise under the 520 bridge, snapping pictures.So far, they've not detected any enmity from Gates for the near-invasion of his privacy. "We haven't heard from him one way or the other," says Owen. "But we don't do anything anyone else can't do. The photos we take from the lake don't show much more than anyone can see when crossing 520." The Web site does poke gentle fun at Gates, noting that the mansion will include a trampoline pit for Bill "who can jump over an armchair from a standing start," and debunking the myth that the mansion will have only 95 windows."So you'd like to know where that $89 you spent for Windows 95 went?" says the latest text, updated August 10. "Situated along the shores of Lake Washington, there it sits, a 40,000-square-foot waterfront home costing close to $50 million. Bill and Melinda thank you. "But since you're paying for it, we thought it cordial to allow you to visit. Thus MorseMcFadden Communications, sparing no expense or discomfort, will fight rain, blow, and seasickness every month or so to bring you updated photos of your investment."Owen admits that's not totally true. "OK, we tend to take the boat out on warm, sunny days," he says. "You know, better light for the pictures."

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