Wednesday, May 27, 2020
May 27, 2020

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Royalty for a day at The Empress Estate in Woodland

Wedding venue adds Bavarian-style structure to complement longtime landmark

10 Photos
The mansion at The Empress Estate serves primarily as a wedding venue. The 17,500-square-foot mansion has hosted 120 weddings this year through mid-November.
The mansion at The Empress Estate serves primarily as a wedding venue. The 17,500-square-foot mansion has hosted 120 weddings this year through mid-November. Photos by Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian Photo Gallery

With the holiday season nipping at our heels, a peaceful getaway could be exactly what the doctor ordered to survive the hustle and bustle. Add in a heavy dose of European influence, without having to budget for a plane ticket or long car ride, and this down time suggestion becomes even more interesting.

Perched atop a 400-foot hill in Woodland, The Empress Estate takes full advantage of Columbia and Lewis River views from each of its five distinctly different suites. During the winter months, this French-inspired mansion is aglow with the spirit of Christmas.

Owners Zoe and Stevie Saleem have spent the last several years bringing the elegance and majesty befitting a four-story, 17,500-square-foot chateau back to The Empress Estate.

“This year, we’ve added more outdoor lights because girls like lights. It’s cool for Christmas. At night it’s spectacular,” Zoe Saleem said. “We’re adding Christmas trees and lights for the season, and we decorate with gold and green.”

Enhancing the wintry feel at The Empress, she said, a Christmas tree will be prominently displayed in the Fireside Room, making it an extra inviting spot to sip eggnog, partake in a plate of sugar cookies and revel in the pampering ambience that the Saleems have created.

The Empress by the Numbers

In 1985, chiropractor Ronald Gerne started building a grand house just north of Woodland. Gerne abandoned the project and sold the not-quite-finished home in 2000 to Rob and Becky Neuschwander for $600,000, according to Columbian archives. The couple transformed the home into a business: Empress Palace, which was host to more than 1,000 weddings.

After nine years, the business closed. Zoe and Stevie Saleem purchased the bank-owned, eight-bedroom, three-story home in March 2012 for $231,000. They invested $270,000 in structural and decorative improvements and opened for business as The Empress Estate in 2013.

Five years after restarting, Zoe Saleem shared some numbers about the business.

• 2018 income to date: $700,000

• Previous years' income:

$950,000 in 2017

$615,000 in 2016

$300,000 in 2015

• Projected sales in 2019: $1.2 million

Wedding rates at The Empress Estate: From $1,490 to a high of $15,000 for a Saturday summer for an all-inclusive package of venue, catering, cake and alcohol

• Bavarian Chateau building cost: $1.2 million

European touches can also be found in the cuisine over the next couple of months as the breakfast menu briefly highlights specialties like German and Swedish pancakes.

Guests are encouraged to bring a warm coat to stroll the 5,000 square feet of garden space in the evening — maybe even stopping at an outdoor stone fireplace to enjoy a glass of locally procured wine from a day of touring the area’s growing wine scene. Fire pits, an outdoor bar constructed of Italian stone, water features and cobbled paths are just a few of the treasures awaiting visitors in the gardens that Zoe Saleem designed. Lights strung from dozens of trees beg for nighttime viewing year-round.

If the grounds and chateau evoke fantasies of the perfect princess wedding, that would be correct. In 2018, The Empress hosted 120 weddings with 85 percent of their clientele originating from the Seattle/Olympia area and Vancouver, Canada. The Saleems even welcomed two couples and their wedding party all the way from China, making The Empress the best-kept secret in its own backyard and a sought-after venue farther afield.

The Empress has a history not uncommon for a structure its size. In 1985, an area chiropractor set out to build his dream home. A decade later, with finances exhausted, that vision was passed on to a couple other entrepreneurs. According to Zoe Saleem, the project went into foreclosure in 2009 and stood vacant for three years. In 2012, the Saleems scooped it up and went about renovation efforts.

“I’ve been to Europe quite a bit and visited so many places,” she said. “This is something that was really intriguing to me. The building is modeled after the 1920s-to-1930s rich and famous, Gatsby-era mansions.”

In fact, The Empress has hosted Gatsby-themed parties, complete with guests sporting period clothing and driving up in antique cars. Character oozes from the mansion that greets visitors in the foyer with a replica of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco painted on the three-story domed ceiling.

It is soaring spiral columns, a host of Juliet balconies, ornate woodwork, an abundance of chandeliers and a double grand staircase that evoke romance so intensely that princess wedding themes are the most popular fantasy The Empress fulfills year over year.

But their fairytale facade is not the only wedding option available. Throughout their expansive grounds, The Empress offers nine ceremony areas — from rustic to formal to whimsical — that can accommodate up to 300 guests.

This year, The Empress debuted its newest addition — a two-story, 8,000-square-foot structure, dubbed Woodland Chateau. Utilizing plenty of wood and stone, the chateau is anchored by two 35-foot fireplaces, stone columns, its own ample bar and a 22-foot-wide deck that wraps from the south to the west side, affording tree top views of both The Empress and the Columbia River. The outdoor space alone can seat up to 150 guests for dinner, cocktail hour or the wedding itself. Inside, the event space can hold 300.

Plans for the ground level of the Bavarian-style chalet are to add a 3,500-square-foot cigar-bar style venue that should be completed by the end of March. Zoe Saleem has yet to name the space but is kicking around “Overlook Annex.” He sees it as a mixed-use room that could play host to poker events, indoor cocktail hour and, possibly, smaller corporate events.

Whether seeking a quiet respite to escape to for an overnight stay that feels a world away or looking for a unique wedding or corporate event destination, The Empress Estate is a local gem hidden in plain sight.

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