Larry LaRue

Replica Japanese palace near Yelm might need a buyer as unique as its creator

The home on the hill near Yelm is unlike anything else in the region. The same could be said for its creator, Christian Schlaepfer.

“You look at the house, it’s unique,” said Ellen Dorfman, who owns the property today and has it on the market. “Christian was eccentric.”

“Christian built a replica of the Katsura Palace.”

And he did it on just over 24 undeveloped acres.

The Japanese palace on which the home is modeled was constructed in the suburbs of Kyoto in the 1600s. Today, the imperial villa is regarded as an enduring treasure of Japanese architecture and gardening.

More than two decades ago, Schlaepfer decided he wanted to recreate it — in a much-smaller form — in rural Thurston County.

“The inspiration came from a Japanese palace,” Schlaepfer wrote in an email this week. “What mattered to me was that it resemble the model from the outside.”

Contractor John Keeslar, owner of Builders Pros, was hired by Schlaepfer in 1992. Keeslar has built homes for nearly 25 years.

“I’ve never built a home like it,” Keeslar said this week. “There were challenges from the beginning, and Christian was picky. If he didn’t like something, he’d say ‘Tear it out and start over.’

For one thing, the site Schlaepfer chose to put his home was more than a half mile from Piessner Road SE. To reach it, Keeslar had to construct a gravel drive and a bridge spanning Toboton Creek, which runs through the property.

The house itself?

“Christian built it for himself, not for curb appeal,” Dorfman said, laughing. “It has incredible light. There are huge windows, six skylights and three double doors that are mostly glass.

“It has a very open feel, and the views make it look like you’re on 200 acres.”

The house ended up filling 1,680 square feet, with covered decks on all sides and 50-year-old trees providing shade.

“I wanted a mountain view, a creek and woods,” Schlaepfer wrote. “The house is surrounded by wetlands, canary grass, huge cotton trees, hazel nuts, alders and other trees not normally found in the woods.”

Born to Swiss parents, Schlaepfer grew up in Mexico, became an engineer and worked in the coffee business for years. When he decided to take a break from the business world, he headed to Yelm and Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment.

“I liked living in Yelm, living in the woods, with people like-minded.” Schlaepfer wrote. “I learned a lot, especially carpentry, and built my house with John.”

When completed, the house was uniquely Schlaepfer’s vision.

“It was solar-powered, had its own well, and the appliances were powered with propane,” contractor Keeslar said. “It’s heated with a wood stove and had a firepit built into the deck.”

Schlaepfer’s two-story house has a meditation loft, a bathroom with a raised tub. Outside, there’s a garden, a cement pond and greenhouse. The entrance to the long driveway is gated.

The land cost $125,000, and the house was completed in 1993. Neither Schaepfer nor Keeslar would share the final cost of the house and amenities.

Schaepfer lived there off and on for nearly two decades and sold the property in 2011. Dorfman was one of the lenders in the transaction, something of a silent partner. The man who bought and lived on the land ran into financial problems. In 2013, he began logging the property, starting near the house.

“They devastated the original look,” Keeslar said.

Dorfman went to court to stop the logging, and the property landed in foreclosure. In May, she bought it for $263,000.

It badly needed work. Inside, the carpet had to go, wood floors needed to be refinished, the walls painted. Outside the decks needed repair. Part of the greenhouse had been turned into a chicken coop.

“I planted 800 trees,” said Dorfman, a New Yorker now living in Olympia.

Has she considered living in the house on the hill herself?

“I’m a little old lady with shoulder issues, and I don’t like to drive,” she said. “My driveway can fit two cars. Out there, the driveway is half a mile long. It’s not my lifestyle.”

The home is listed at $369,000. Selling it has been a slow process. Since it went on the market in July, three people have been interested enough to ask to see it.

“It appeals to a very small part of the population,” Dorfman said. “It would be perfect for a young couple who want to live in a remote area. The views are gorgeous — everyone who sees it raves about the light and the views.

Schlaepfer, who moved back south and now lives near Mexico City, understands the problems associated with selling a replica Japanese palace. When he first put the place up for sale in 2008, it was listed for $675,000. Four months later, he took it off the market. He sold it in 2011 for $470,000.

“The property itself is not what your average person would choose — generally they want flat land and a house close to the road,” Schlaepfer wrote.

But an average person didn’t build it.

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