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Thursday, October 9, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Allen's, Gates' funds transform UW computer building

Seattle Times technology reporter

Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering


Cost: $72 million
Faculty: Roughly 35
Staff: 40
Undergraduates: 450
Graduate students: 275
Computers: 839, not counting microprocessors such as elevator controllers.
Flat-panel displays: 513
New disk storage: 5.7 terabytes (trillion)
Wireless access points: 64
Cat-6 cabling: 310,000 feet
Square footage: 85,000
Espresso bar: 1

Bill Gates and Paul Allen met at Lakeside School, but they got serious about computers at the University of Washington.

Like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in their cave, Gates and Allen prowled the UW's basement computer lab in the early 1970s to tinker with its big and rare machines.

They don't have to sneak around anymore.

Last night, in a private dinner with UW leaders, Allen and Gates were given electronic entry cards giving them permanent access to the new $72 million Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering, paid for largely by the Microsoft co-founders.

The Allen building, with its soaring atrium, rich wood-trimmed interior and high-tech accoutrements, is another monument to the phenomenal wealth that Microsoft and other technology companies created over the past two decades.

It's also the latest mark on the UW by the technology magnates who grew up in neighborhoods near the school. Allen's dad was a UW librarian and Gates' parents were alumni and later regents.

Also on campus are the new law school building named for Gates' father, a library named for Allen's father and other campus buildings named for their mothers.

"For me it's great to be able to come full circle like this," Allen said in a phone interview, during which he told of slipping into the labs to get free computer time.

"As a high school student I just nerved myself up and walked in there," he said.

After a few weeks an assistant professor asked Allen if he was a student.

"I said no," Allen recalled. "He said, people tell me you're helping them out. As long as you help them out you can stay."

Then he started letting in Gates and other members of the Lakeside computer club.

"Eventually I think we probably overstayed our welcome," he said.

Allen repaid the debt when the UW asked for help replacing the computer science and engineering department's aging Sieg Hall. He gave the most, $14 million, and the building, near the campus fountain, is named after him.

Even the floor mats have Allen's name on them, but various alcoves and stairways are named for other donors, including Microsoft retirees Brad Silverberg and Paul Maritz.

Gates' name isn't prominent, but you can see his Medina mansion from the upstairs conference room facing Lake Washington.

Instead of a few big computers, the basement labs now have hundreds of smaller machines. They provide room for experiments in areas such as robotics and graphics, and cross-department efforts, including a biology project that glues computer chips to slugs and moths to monitor their motion.

"Paul continues to support our community in a variety of important ways," Gates said by e-mail, "and we are proud to help make this badly needed facility a reality."

Gates and Allen founded Microsoft in 1975 and worked together until 1983, when Allen left after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease.

Forbes magazine ranks Allen as the third-richest man in the U.S., with a fortune of $22 billion.

Altogether Allen has given the UW $38,081,703, even though he attended Washington State University. He also plans to rent research space to the school in the cluster of offices he's developing between downtown Seattle and Lake Union.

Allen said there is no grand scheme for the school buildings, offices he has developed and cultural facilities he's funded such as the Experience Music Project.

"A lot of these things spring from a desire to give back to the community, do positive things in the community," he said.

Allen's $14 million was supplemented by other donations for the computer-science building and program endowments: $7.2 million from Microsoft, $6.5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and $18 million from 250 alumni, Microsoft employees and other donors. The Legislature provided $10 million and the UW $20 million.

With Microsoft's slower growth and the end of its stock-option program, the region may never again see a surge of wealth as it did in the 1990s. But David Notkin, chairman of the computer science and engineering department, and former chair Ed Lazowska said the building sets a precedent for future building projects. It's the first at the UW in which donations made up more than half the funding.

Notkin noted that many of the people made rich by technology are still young and haven't decided yet where to direct their philanthropy.

"A lot of our donors are first-time donors to the university," he said. "These are people who are going to be committed to the place. That's fantastic."

Although there are better locks on the lab doors, Lazowska and Notkin said inquisitive young visitors can probably get in by banging on the large windows and waving.

"We actually believe some of that's going to happen," Notkin said. "We believe the side effect of a great facility is the things you can't predict — the next Pauls and Bills trying to find resources."

Gates said the new building "will help bring jobs and investment to our region, ensuring that our state stays on the cutting edge of technology for years to come."

At other universities some students and faculty have objected to Microsoft's efforts to broaden its reach by seeding their curriculum with its software.

But several students studying in the labs and communal areas of the Allen building yesterday didn't seem to have given much thought to the name over the door.

Senior Matthew Milcic said the Microsoft connection isn't skewing the computer-science program toward Microsoft technology.

"I don't see how it would — they still use a Unix system here for everything," he said, referring to the industrial-strength operating system that competes with Microsoft Windows.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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