Commanding a spectacular view of both the Columbia and Lewis rivers is a sought-after destination wedding venue that is, ironically, one of Southwest Washington’s best kept secrets.
Owner Zoe Saleem estimates that 2019 will see approximately 100 to 120 events at The Empress Estate, located in Woodland, although the bulk of their past clients have hailed from Canada and the Seattle/Olympia area.
“We would love for people in the Vancouver/Portland area to come,” Zoe said. “Most people don’t even know it’s here. We’re situated right off the highway but we’re at the top of a 300- to 400-foot hill. People are shocked to know this kind of building exists in Woodland.”
What began as one man’s vision to build a grand home in 1985 became a tale not unlike many others when a substantial project is undertaken. Ten years later, the original owner ran out of money and it changed hands before being abandoned and falling into disrepair. As an avid traveler, Zoe fell in love with the mansion’s European architecture.
In 2012, with the help of his wife, Stevie, he took on the restoration and completion of the four-story, 17,500-square-foot mansion. He describes the finished product as reminiscent of the Gatsby-era homes frequented by the rich and famous of the 1920s and 1930s. A replica of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is painted on the three-story domed foyer. There are stately spiral columns, Juliet balconies, a double-grand staircase, elegant woodwork and oodles of chandeliers. Due to its fairytale façade, princess weddings are a popular theme.
In addition to the mansion, The Empress recently unveiled an 8,000-square-foot Bavarian-style chalet with a decidedly Northwest flair that can seat up to 300 inside. Stone elements include indoor and outdoor fireplaces and columns. A 22-foot-wide wooden deck wraps around the building from the west to the south sides, capable of seating 150 for dinner or cocktails.
Located just up the hill from the mansion, the chalet has the same territorial and river views as well as views of the terraced gardens between the two structures.
Throughout the 5,000 square feet of garden space are fireplaces, lights strung from young Evergreens, multiple gathering spaces with ample seating, an outdoor bar constructed of Italian stone, water features and cobbled paths. Outdoor benches for wedding ceremonies are courtesy of Zoe who crafted them from logs fallen on the property.
In total, The Empress boasts nine ceremony areas, making it a premiere wedding venue in addition to being able to host corporate events and other gatherings.
According to Zoe, it is a site that needs no fuss. With the team that he has assembled, The Empress touts itself as an all-inclusive locale. In addition to handling the cake, florist, music and other details, The Empress has its own chef who creates all event menus in-house for the freshest culinary experience possible. The estate is also positioned to offer overnight accommodations for up to 16 guests in their five on-site suites, which reside on the second and third floors of the mansion. All decorated in a different style, Country French, Versailles and Old American are represented. Each room has an en suite bathroom and private balcony to savor the panoramic views and all overnight guests are treated to breakfast in the morning.
The Saleems moved from Portland to Woodland five years ago and their excitement for what they’ve resurrected is most evident when Zoe talks about the bed and breakfast component of The Empress. When the estate is not booked for an event, the Fireside Room, Courtyard Garden and meticulously landscaped grounds are available to provide a European-like experience for Northwest residents.
“When you don’t want to go far but you want to have a relaxing experience, it’s (The Empress) very close,” Zoe said. “Twenty minutes and you find yourself in Europe.”