Who gets the Gates family mansion, almost size of a football field, after divorce announcement?

The details of the waterfront compound have been kept incredibly private by the Gates family. PHOTO: WIKIPEDIA COMMONS

SEATTLE (NYTIMES) - As experts in philanthropy, finance, technology and global health scramble to predict what the divorce of Melinda and Bill Gates could mean for their industries, others are wondering: Who will get their lakefront estate in the Seattle suburbs, which is valued at upward of US$131 million (S$173 million)? And will the public finally get a peek inside?

The couple, worth an estimated US$124 billion, according to Forbes, announced their split in a joint statement posted on their social media profiles on Monday (May 3). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, of which they are co-chairs, said that nothing will change in its organisational structure.

But their 66,000 sq ft home - slightly smaller than the size of a football field - on the shore of Lake Washington is another matter.

The sprawling complex - which, at the time of a 1995 New York Times story, included a spa, a 18m pool, a gym panelled with stone from a mountain peak in the Pacific Northwest, a trampoline room, and a stream for salmon, trout and other fish - got the nickname Xanadu 2.0 from Mr Gates' biographers. Xanadu is the name of a large, lavish property that belongs to the tycoon at the heart of the film Citizen Kane. The 2.0 refers to Gates' technological innovations.

The details of the waterfront compound have been kept incredibly private by the Gates family - so much so that a tour of the property went for US$35,000 at a charity auction in 2009, according to TechCrunch.

The Gateses own multiple other parcels of land surrounding the main property, according to public records, so walking by to catch a glimpse is out of the question.

But an intern for Microsoft who made it inside in 2007 was allowed to write about the visit on the company's blog. According to his account, the house is built out of "orangey wood" and the sand on the beach is imported from Hawaii. The wood is Douglas fir; the origin of the sand, unconfirmed.

"Going down Bill's driveway is like arriving at Jurassic Park," the intern wrote. "The landscaping is just insane."

Other known details about the house are that it was divided into pavilions that were terraced into a 50m hill and that it was designed by architects James Cutler and Peter Bohlin. Mr Bohlin's firm later designed the famous Apple cube at the company's store in Fifth Avenue in New York.

Ms Melinda Gates once said that the mansion caused her to have a "mini sort of personal crisis". Mr Gates was already working on his dream home before marrying her in 1994. But construction was halted when she arrived on the scene.

The place was "a bachelor's dream and a bride's nightmare", according to a 2008 profile of Ms Gates in Fortune magazine, with "enough software and high-tech displays to make a newlywed feel as though she were living inside a video game."

A decade later, Ms Gates was similarly grim: "Just to be clear, the house was being built before I came on the scene," she said in a 2019 New York Times interview. "But I take responsibility for it."

After six months of discussions about whether the entire project should be scrapped, Ms Gates decided to influence further construction by incorporating her preferences - and insisted on making the place a home for a family and not a lone tech wizard.

To that end, she hired interior designer Thierry Despont, who has been the creative mind behind the restoration of famous interiors like the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel in New York and the Ritz in Paris.

Still, Mr Gates made big promises about the house's technological powers in his 1995 book, The Road Ahead. He described his vision of a smart home where guests would be given badges that would communicate with sensors around the house. As they moved through the rooms, lights would dim or brighten, music would play and the temperature would automatically adjust to their preference. It's not clear whether these plans panned out.

Another aspect of Mr Gates' vision was to turn the walls into video screens where he would be able to display digitised works of art. As the house was being built, Mr Gates began to purchase the electronic rights to world-famous pieces from museums like the National Gallery in London through a company called Interactive Home Systems.

Mr Bill Gates was already working on his dream home before marrying Ms Melinda Gates in 1994. PHOTO: AFP

These acquisitions were part of an entrepreneurial experiment: Mr Gates imagined that in the future, other people would be able to decorate their homes with digitised artworks just like he was attempting to do.

His vision didn't come to fruition. Interactive Home Systems became Corbis, a rich photography archive, which later sold its image and licensing division to a Chinese company.

Perhaps Mr Gates may now recommit himself to designing and building a smart house, though that may not be a challenging project for him today, now that connected devices are everywhere. Because despite the changes she made to the couple's home, Ms Gates recently expressed misgivings about continuing to live there.

"We won't have that house forever," she told The Times in 2019. "I'm actually really looking forward to the day that Bill and I live in a 1,500 sq ft house."

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