An empress reigns again: Woodland estate opens for weddings

Couple refurbish hillside mansion as a venue for weddings, other special events

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian neighborhood news coordinator

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photoStevie Saleem, owner of Empress Estate, looks down from the second floor into the Woodland home's entryway while giving a tour Jan. 11. She and her husband, Zoe, plan to rent out the property for weddings and other special events, and eventually have it be a bed-and-breakfast.

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GRAND OPENING

Empress Estate, 460 Empress Lane in Woodland, is hosting an open house celebration from 1 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19. A drawing will take place that day for a free wedding package. For more information, visit www.theempressestate.com.

The mansion on the hill had seen grander days.

A thick winter fog clouded Stevie Saleem's first approach to 460 Empress Lane in Woodland. Walking past a spiky iron fence, under the gaze of two concrete gargoyles, she felt a bit spooked.

At that point in January 2012, the 17,000-square-foot chateau-like home had been vacant for three years. The once-manicured lawn had gone sour, vandals had made their destructive marks, a mattress-sized hole in the ceiling caused water to pool in the living room.

Life had left Empress Estate.

"It looked like a haunted house almost," Stevie said. "It was pretty eerie."

The foreclosed property, known for hosting lavish weddings, had fallen — as so many have since the Great Recession — into disrepair.

But beneath the tarnished surface, Stevie and husband Zoe saw glimmers of opportunity. Stevie strives to be a consummate host, and Zoe is a sucker for a stellar view. Both 50-year-olds envisioned a future after retirement where they would run a bed-and-breakfast.

The Empress fit their dreams.

Open for business

Snatching up the bank-owned property last March for a steal at $231,000, the Portland couple jumped right into resuscitating the eight-bedroom, three-story home.

"You start pulling things apart and seeing what needs to be done," Stevie said. Rarely a day went by over the next months when she wasn't splattered in paint, dust or caulking.

"The people at Ace Hardware know us really well," Stevie laughed.

To kick-start their new venture, Stevie took a sabbatical from her family therapy practice. Zoe still manages six Radio Cab taxis, and the pair also has a few cottages for rent on the Oregon Coast.

One year after they first eyed Empress Estate — and nearly $270,000 in structural and decorative improvements later — the property is open for business. The

Saleems hope to fill their calendar with wedding bookings and other special events, before eventually opening a bed-and-breakfast once they find their footing.

Stevie hopes reservations start flowing in soon, because their schedule is still an empty slate. She predicts it would take about 30 weddings a year to stay afloat.

"We are definitely anxious for things to turn around," Stevie said. "We lost a lot of sleep over it, deciding to move forward or not."

Stops and starts

The foundation of Empress Estate was laid in 1985. Chiropractor Ronald Gerne, who has offices in Woodland and Longview, embarked on a quest to build a monumental home just north of Woodland for him and his wife, Nancy.

But it became a Sisyphean task.

Just like the mythological Greek legend endlessly pushing a boulder up a hill, Gerne found the seemingly never-ending construction was becoming a futile burden.

"My wife felt that I needed to move on with it, and I agreed with her," Gerne said.

In 2000, Rob and Becky Neuschwander bought the not-quite-finished home from Gerne for what seemed at the time like an "irresistible" price of $600,000. They wanted to transform it into a one-of-a-kind landmark for Southwest Washington: Empress Palace.

As Empress Palace, the property was host to more than 1,000 weddings, where guests celebrated amid luxurious surroundings: towering spiral columns, marble flooring and a reproduction of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco, "The Creation of Adam," painted on the domed ceiling above the foyer.

"Everybody said it was impossible," said Rob, now a volunteer pastor in Kalama. "It was a challenge, and I think we did an amazing job."

After nine years, Rob said mounting debt and staggering costs forced him to shutter what he took to calling "The Taj Mahal of the Northwest." The Neuschwanders eventually filed for bankruptcy.

A flurry of media reports followed, focusing on a handful of complaints regarding lost rental deposits from prospective wedding parties.

Then silence fell upon Empress Palace.

Talk of the town

Talk of a reborn Empress Estate is just beginning to hum in Woodland. Chamber of Commerce Director and city council member J.J. Burke said the property still remains a mystery to many in the small town.

Burke said he's intrigued to finally get a look inside the estate at an open house from 1 to 8 p.m. Saturday.

"It's interesting to see what it's going to become," Burke said.

While Deanne Salmon felt sadness after learning her beautiful wedding spot had deteriorated, news of its return makes her smile.

She loved every part of her 2008 wedding at Empress Palace. Her first marriage was in front of a justice of the peace. The second time around she craved more pizzazz.

"To get remarried years later in my 30s, and to have what lots of people would consider a princess wedding, it was very special," Salmon said.

'Now is the time'

In the early months of planning Empress Estate, Zoe and Stevie reached out to former owners Gerne and Rob Neuschwander to get advice on the undertaking. They shared a similar tip: Be prepared, it could be a rough ride.

Stevie said she and Zoe predicted operating an elaborate wedding venue wouldn't be easy but decided to push forward regardless.

"We came to that point of no return in our minds," she said.

Stevie hopes by offering discounted introductory wedding packages, business will begin to boom.

"It can't just stand there and look pretty anymore," Stevie said about Empress Estate. "Now is the time."

Stover E. Harger III: 360-735-4530; http://www.twitter.com/col_hoods;stover.harger@columbian.com.