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Thursday, June 9, 2005 - 12:00 AM -- Updated June 9, 2005 - 04:47 AM

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What to show the relatives who want to meet that Gates fellow

Seattle Times technology reporter

So it's summertime, Aunt Edna is visiting from Oklahoma and she wants to "see Microsoft."

She'd also like to meet that Gates fellow, if it's not too much to ask.

Tell her that few people in Seattle ever see the famous billionaire. But there are several ways that tourists and locals alike can visit Microsoft, officially and unofficially, for a glimpse of the world's largest software factory. It's also easy to visit some of the same places — saltwater beaches, restaurants, theaters, quiet Medina lanes — frequented by the world's richest man. Bill Gates is a movie buff, for instance, and he's occasionally seen at theaters such as the Kirkland Parkplace Cinema. Gates also showed up for a U2 concert at KeyArena in April (but then, lead singer Bono was staying at Gates' place during his visit).

Although they mostly live along the shores of Lake Washington, you're also likely to see software billionaires near the south end of Hood Canal during the summer. Since the 1950s, the Gates family has had a cabin just south of the Alderbrook Resort & Spa, which itself was recently spiffed up by Gates pal and fellow Microsoft exec Jeff Raikes, who has his own vacation home nearby. (Rent pedal boats and kayaks off the resort dock for a tour of the beachfront.)

The unofficial tour of Microsoft's Redmond headquarters has long consisted of asking friends or family who work there for a peek inside. If that fails, you could always drive around the campus, walk its woodsy trails and observe "Programmerus redmondus" in its natural habitat.

Plenty of "gee-whiz"

Greater Microsoft


It can be a challenge to tour Microsoft, but it's easy to see cultural attractions that Microsoft wealth has created in Seattle. Here's a list of some of the places that stand as monuments to the billions in personal wealth the company created in the 1990s.

Experience Music Project: Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's loud shrine to rock 'n' roll displays part of his music memorabilia collection. In the same complex is another Allen pet project, the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. Off Fifth Avenue near the base of the Space Needle. Summer hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. Combo ticket: $26.95 general; $19.95 youth (7-17), senior citizens and military; 6 and younger free. 206-367-5483 or www.emplive.org and www.sfhomeworld.org.

Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering: Allen went to Washington State University, but he and other ex-Microsoft executives paid for much of the University of Washington building that opened in 2003. He also funded a wing of the library named after his late father, who was an associate librarian there.

Qwest Field: Washington taxpayers financed much of the football stadium, but Allen owns the Seattle Seahawks, who play there.

Allentown: Allen's trying to make his next fortune in real estate. His biggest project is the redevelopment of the formerly blue-collar zone south of Lake Union and north of downtown Seattle, where his Vulcan development company is adding condominiums, office towers and facilities for biotechnology research outfits. Allen is trying to coax more city support for the project, including a new streetcar line. An elaborate, interactive diorama pitching his vision for the area is on display at a new sales office and visitor center called the South Lake Union Discovery Center, at Westlake Avenue and Denny Way. Condos going up across the street are priced at $300,000 to $2 million and as of late May, 90 percent were sold.

Gates of academia:

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates paid for most of William H. Gates Hall, the UW School of Law's new building, which was named after his father, a lawyer. It's near the northwestern corner of the Seattle campus, off 15th Avenue Northeast and just south of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Between Suzzallo Library and Drumheller Fountain on campus is Mary Gates Hall, named for Bill's mother.

Now, with the company entering its 30th year of business, the official tour options have gotten better. They may even be a fun excursion for locals who want to learn more about what is now the Seattle area's biggest and most famous local company.

A centerpiece of the tour should be the company visitor center, which is pretty much the only place on campus open to the general public. The free center is expected to draw more than 80,000 visitors this year.

"We're not promoting ourselves the way the [Experience Music Project] would or the Science Center, but we are available to anyone who comes to campus," said John Cirone, visitor center manager.

Microsoft has had a visitor center for years, but until recently it was mainly promotional and had few activities.

Over the past year Cirone looked at what other companies offered, checked out EMP in Seattle and completely overhauled the visitor center. It reopened in January with an entirely new look, more artifacts from the company trove and hands-on exhibits that showcase the company's consumer products.

The visitor center is still heavy on marketing material. Microsoft uses the place to orient new employees, and visitors have to walk through a corridor displaying its "Realizing Potential" ad campaign.

But there's also plenty of gee-whiz for guests. Visitors may sign in to get their photo taken for a temporary "smart card" like the ones that employees use to enter buildings and log on to their PCs. The cards personalize animated displays inside, in some cases displaying visitors' faces.

Inside, the displays try to explain what software is and the role it plays in the world.

The centerpiece is an EMP-style time line that illustrates Microsoft's history with a collection of artifacts and kitschy pop-culture materials from the 1970s to the present.

Aficionados may gravitate to the paper tapes — predecessors to the floppy disk and CDs — containing an early version of the BASIC computer language. They're displayed alongside the "open letter to hobbyists" that Gates wrote in 1976, revealing the hard-nosed business philosophy that got him where he is. In the letter, Gates says software should be sold, that sharing it equates with theft and that hobbyists who copied his BASIC program should pay up.

Teens can bypass the educational stuff and beeline to the back, where a spaceshiplike room is packed with Xbox video consoles and a thumping, surround-sound stereo setup.

Other exhibits let visitors film themselves in a digital movie or make a free call anywhere in the United States with a Microsoft-developed mobile phone.

Upstairs from the visitor center is the relatively famous company store, where employees can buy software at bargain prices. Visitors can shop there and buy paraphernalia such as Microsoft shirts and cups, but they can't get discounted software.

It's not encouraged by the company, but visitors can also explore campus walking trails that meander through clusters of trees between the midrise buildings. At the center of campus are large fields where employees may play soccer, Frisbee or softball on nice days, or have picnics or outdoor meetings. Neighbors walk their dogs through campus.

Sometimes the company uses the field for blowout events, like product launches. An executive such as Jim Allchin, head of the Windows group, may be on a makeshift stage playing an electric guitar. Once, a pair of decorated helicopters landed on the field to deliver the first copies of Windows XP to computer manufacturers.

A $125 million home

If you go


Software source

Microsoft headquarters is at One Microsoft Way, Redmond. Most people reach the campus via Highway 520. Microsoft has buildings on both sides of the highway, but the main campus is on the east side, between Northeast 40th Street and Bel-Red Road.

Microsoft Visitor Center

The free visitor center is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. The company suggests checking beforehand to be sure the facility is not being used for a company event or scheduled tour: 425-703-6214 or mvc@microsoft.com. To get there, exit Highway 520 at 148th Avenue Northeast. Go north for a block and a half; just past the 40th Street intersection, look for a sign on the right that says Microsoft Building 127. The visitor center is in the east end of the building. More information: www.microsoft.com/museum.

Boat tour

Argosy Cruises offers a two-hour Lake Cruise with a look at Bill Gates' lakefront estate, departing from South Lake Union in Seattle at 11 a.m., 1:15 and 3:30 p.m. daily through Labor Day. A 90-minute version from Kirkland's City Dock departs 11:30 a.m., 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. daily through Labor Day. Depending on the season, tours cost $21 to $25.75 for adults, $8.25 to $9.25 for children ages 5-12, and groups of six or more get 15 percent off. 800-642-7816 or www.argosycruises.com.

Lodging

Several Marriott hotels near Microsoft's campus serve as unofficial boarding houses for job recruits, overseas employees and other official visitors. Whether your guests choose to stay alongside a suburban office park depends on how much they want to immerse themselves in the Microsoft experience. Options include the Residence Inn at 14455 N.E. 29th Place, the Fairfield Inn at 14595 N.E. 29th Place or the Courtyard Inn at 14615 N.E. 29th Place.

Alderbrook Resort & Spa, near Union, Mason County, on Hood Canal, offers a glimpse of where Seattle's rich and famous spend summer break. 800-622-9370 or www.alderbrookresort.com.

Restaurants

The "Microsoft Burgermaster" is at 10606 N.E. Northup Way in Bellevue. 425-827-9566.

Microsoft's cafeterias are closed to the public, but you can mingle with coders in the buffet line at Mayuri, an Indian restaurant not far from campus at 15400 N.E. 20th St., in a strip mall next to a Trader Joe's. If you order off the menu, try their dosas, a South Indian crepe stuffed with curried vegetables.

Traveler's tip

If you visit the Microsoft campus, plan around traffic. Highway 520 can be awful on weekdays from around 8 to 9:30 a.m. and from around 3:30 p.m. until rush hour ends.

More information

Of course there's plenty of information about Microsoft online. Quick facts about the company, including a time line and workforce information, are here: www.microsoft.com/presspass/inside_ms.asp.

After touring the Microsoft campus, take Aunt Edna to lunch at the Burgermaster drive-in on Northup Way, near Microsoft's first office building in the area. Before she complains about having to eat a burger in her car, let her know that she might end up dining next to Gates, who still drops by several times a month (see related story, next page).

Burgermaster is midway between Microsoft's Redmond campus and the "gold coast" communities of Medina, Hunts Point and Yarrow Bay where Gates, chief executive Steve Ballmer and other billionaires live in mansions along the lake.

It takes the brain of a programmer to find your way around the leafy streets that weave around the shoreline, hills, parks and Highway 520, but Edna may enjoy a glimpse of homes with a median price of around $860,000.

The most expensive one of all is Gates' mansion off 73rd Avenue Northeast in Medina. Built in 1997, the Northwest architectural showpiece is actually a cluster of wood, glass and steel structures with around 40,000 square feet of living space, spread over a 5-acre bluff.

There is a garage for about 30 cars, a salmon-spawning stream and room for Gates to host more than 100 dinner guests — chief executives, world leaders or his three children's classmates all at once.

For 2005 taxes, King County valued the spread at $125 million, not including about a dozen neighboring houses Gates has bought for privacy and to provide housing for personal employees.

Don't expect to see much from the street. The place is surrounded by dense trees and shrubbery, so all you can see from the road is a driveway with an anonymous, but tasteful, wood and metal gate.

Equally obscured is the Mercer Island complex of the other Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, on West Mercer Way. It includes an extensive library for his mother, who lives there as well, and a waterfront music studio where Allen plays homage to his beloved Jimi Hendrix, Seattle-born guitar master of the 1960s.

Beware that while you're checking out the billionaires' driveways, their security guards are checking you out through video monitoring systems. If you stop for long they'll appear and ask you to move on.

The lake approach

The best way to see Gates' place is by boat. A local tour-boat company offers cruises past the compound, which is a short distance south of the Highway 520 bridge on the eastern shore of Lake Washington.

Argosy Cruises' Lake Cruises depart daily from Lake Union year-round, and from Kirkland from April through November.

The brochures promise views of "the luxurious waterfront homes of Seattle's rich and famous" but there's no beating around the bush. They motor right over to Gates' compound in Medina, then slowly meander past, about 100 yards offshore, while everyone gets a picture of what may be the most expensive home in the nation.

From the outside, the place looks like a modern camp lodge. Inside is a mix of old and new — salvaged timbers from old industrial buildings and cutting-edge electronics. Electronic sensors carried by family or visitors can be programmed with personal preferences so that flat-panel screens display favorite art images depending on who is nearby. Lights adjust automatically. (U.S. News & World Report's Web site features an interactive model of the whole compound: www.usnews.com/usnews/tech/billgate/gates.htm.)

Microsoft doesn't promote the boat tour, but Argosy says it has approval from Gates. Less cooperative was Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who lives nearby but asked the company not to point out his home.

The Seattle cruise also passes the "Sleepless in Seattle" houseboat, Husky Stadium and Dale Chihuly's Lake Union studio, but tour operators say Gates' house is far and away the most popular part of the tour.

"They'll be interested, then they'll really be interested when we go by Bill Gates' house — the boat kind of lists to the left," said tour guide Nikki Bradford, who grew up in Clyde Hill, not far from the house.

Bradford has been narrating the daily tour for four years and has never seen Gates himself.

In fact she rarely sees anybody, other than gardeners and the occasional security guard, at the mansions along the priciest stretch of waterfront north of Malibu. On a sunny afternoon in May, deck chairs sat empty in the sun and speedboats rested quietly at their docks.

"It's amazing, a lot of these houses, you never see anybody outside — mowing the lawn, maybe," Bradford said. "Passengers come up and ask me why they don't see anyone. I don't know."

The boat also motors past other homes of Microsoft millionaires and billionaires, including the futuristic bachelor pad that Hungarian programming genius Charles Simonyi modeled after the work of his favorite abstract artist.

"Very impressive," said Liu Zhaoxu, a 17-year-old from Beijing, after scoping out the Gates place from the deck of Argosy's Champagne Lady.

Zhaoxu hopes to work at Microsoft someday. So does his mother, finance expert Rose Wang, who brought the family to Seattle when she came for a job interview at the company in May. They took the tour the day after her interview.

"I don't want to go home," she said. "I just want to stay here."

Brier Dudley covers Microsoft for The Times: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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