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MANSION ON THE HILL~ Featured Article In The Reflector.

WOODLAND — Off the beaten path, but still close to major thoroughfares, sits a mansion on the top of a hill offering all manner of getaways.

The Empress Estate is a bed and breakfast, but also a destination venue for gatherings such as weddings, corporate retreats and fundraisers. Rising from the hills of the outskirts of Woodland, the estate offers five suites along with its ample space for celebrations or meetings.

The estate is about three miles down the road from Interstate 5 Exit 22 north of Woodland. After driving up a backcountry road the view spills out onto the gates and building of the estate which for many guests comes as a bit of a shock.

“It’s a little unique to the area, really. We like it; people get surprised every time they come through here,” said Empress Estate owner Zoe Saleem.

His wife, estate creative director Stevie Saleem, joked that having some sort of reaction camera set up at the approach would be a nice addition to show the looks on the faces of those heading up on the drive.

The estate offers seven different ceremonial areas, both indoor and outdoor, Wedding & Event Coordinator Ambree Uvarov said. The different outdoor locations, featuring a grassy opening overlooking the Columbia River, were all opened for use within the last year.

Outdoor ceremony spots included a terrace featuring wooden benches carved out of trees that had fallen during a winter storm last December, Uvarov said, providing a local touch to some of the estate’s work.

Ceremonies can also take place in front of the doors to the estate, with even the possibility of vows happening on the top balcony with the guests below.

Although outdoor weddings would work best in the summertime, Uvarov said a tent and heaters can be setup to provide an enclosure allowing for ceremonies in the open air even when it is a bit chilly.

Inside the ballroom can be opened up to feature both indoor and outdoor seating, with smaller ceremonies possible in the foyer, flanked by stairs leading up to the suites. The estate also features a small pool which can have a covering placed over it, which along with lighting turns the pool into a lit dance floor.

Although the venue offers a great opportunity for weddings, Stevie Saleem also said the estate was able to host holiday parties, corporate events, retreats and seminars.

“It feels like they are really getting away, when they are still only 20 minutes from their home office,” Stevie Saleem said.

Estate staff said they were an all-inclusive event location with the different accoutrements such as dining set pieces done in-house.

“We can take care of as many pieces as the people want us to,” Stevie Saleem said, mentioning partnerships with different vendors can allow them to take care of every need.

Wedding parties range from a couple of guests where everyone stays the night to celebrations as big as 200 people for outdoor outings, Stevie Saleem said. The estate can bed up to 16 people in its five rooms, allowing for a more intimate feel similar to a destination wedding.

The estate has some history. Zoe Saleem said the property had changed hands by previous owners that had more ambition than they had money. A joint venture that started with weddings at the turn of the millennium went out of business with the coming of the Great Recession. Stevie Saleem said when she and Zoe took over the property in 2012 it had been vacant for several years. The buildings and grounds were damaged from neglect and vandalism.

“The structure was really good — it just needed somebody to love it,” Zoe Saleem said.

The Saleems got to work, often doing what they could themselves.

“We did a lot of the grunt work,” Stevie Saleem said, adding through the restoration she learned how to operate a boom lift, a skill she never thought she would learn.

The Saleems had previously done restoration work on properties in the Portland area, though Zoe Saleem commented those paled in comparison to the size of the Empress. He said the uniqueness of the estate compared to its location made it an attractive project for the couple.

“It was just asking someone to save it,” Zoe Saleem said.

The Empress had a “grand opening” at the start of 2013, though it was more of a soft launch, Zoe Saleem said. He said when it came to weddings the planning could take a year or more. The destination also served host to fundraising events after opening to raise awareness that the estate existed in Woodland and south Cowlitz County’s backyard.

“A lot of people in this community didn’t even know it existed, and it has been here for 30 years,” Stevie Saleem said.

Although remote, Stevie Saleem said the Empress spurs economic support to the area by bringing in guests to local restaurants and lodgings.

The estate combines both the interesting architecture and design while being firmly planted in its rather isolated — yet close — location.

“We’re in such a beautiful natural space that we didn’t want just the focus to be this building, but that we have the beautiful wooded surroundings,” Stevie Saleem said, explaining that offering both the European elegance of the building with more rustic Pacific Northwest notes was important.

-Rick Bannon, The Reflector.


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