Who will get this $173m mansion?

Fate of sprawling property nicknamed Xanadu in the air after divorce announcement

A 2017 photo of Mr Bill Gates and his wife Melinda. The couple announced last week that they were splitting up after 27 years of marriage. EPA-EFE
A 2017 photo of Mr Bill Gates and his wife Melinda. The couple announced last week that they were splitting up after 27 years of marriage. EPA-EFE

SEATTLE • As experts in philanthropy, finance, technology and global health scramble to predict what the divorce of Bill and Melinda Gates could mean for their industries, others are wondering: Who will get their lakefront estate in the Seattle suburbs, which is valued at upwards 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 to their social media profiles last Monday. 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 - nearly 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 60-ft pool, a gym panelled with stone from a mountain peak in the Pacific north-west, 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 Mr 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 couple own multiple other parcels of land surrounding their main property, according to public records, so walking by to catch a glimpse is out of the question.

But a Microsoft intern who made it inside in 2007 was allowed to write about the visit on the company's blog. The house is built out of "orangey wood" and the sand on the beach is from Hawaii, he wrote on his account. 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 170-ft 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 New York.

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

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

A decade later, she 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 project should be scrapped, Melinda 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, 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.

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

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 did not 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, with connected devices already 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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 09, 2021, with the headline 'Who will get this $173m mansion?'. Subscribe