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- Photos by Keith Borgmeyer
The Sorenson Estate offers a stylish alternative to the traditional ballroom or chapel.
When Dr. Wes Sorenson died in 2012, he left behind a parting gift to MU. A long-time professor of zoology with a passion for native plant conservation, Wes wanted to see his 400 acres off Highway WW — and the stately farmhouse that sits in the middle of it — preserved for future enjoyment.
But beyond basic conservation, the university had few plans for the Sorenson property when they first inherited it. Despite some chipped paint and dated brown carpeting, the sprawling house had good bones. Yet Kylee Lawhead, current special events coordinator at the estate, describes how using the house for a residence seemed redundant.
“We didn’t need a chancellor’s house, we didn’t need a residence house,” she says. “We already had a bed and breakfast. Turning it into bedrooms wasn’t really going to help anybody.”
Instead, MU’s College of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources hatched a different plan. The vast majority of the land would be used for research in environmental studies and forestry. The 20 acres surrounding the farmhouse, however, would be converted into an event space.
Kylee explains that a venue for weddings and corporate gatherings has proven valuable to both students studying hospitality and the City of Columbia as a whole. “It was something else to benefit students and something else to add to the community,” she says.
Based on the electrical work, the current property managers estimate that the house was built in the 1960s. The design was classic from the start, however, making the university’s remodel job a breeze. Kylee says flipping the home was as easy as a fresh coat of paint and a round of carpet removal. The intricate wood parquet flooring and elegant molding visible today are all original.
The result is a space that feels refreshingly traditional. On the walls, various shades of cool-toned gray balance the rich wood and bright white trim, while the furniture blends modern influences with old-fashioned charm. Taken all together, the house becomes a simple, refined backdrop that allows the stars of the event to shine.
Kylee emphasizes the importance of the estate’s aesthetic flexibility when it comes to hosting a broad array of events. Each wedding, baby shower, photo shoot, and corporate luncheon brings its own color scheme and space requirements. Little things, like shifting the furniture or incorporating both gold and silver into the décor, allow the house to adapt to any event without sacrificing character.
Kylee said she has never met a theme that couldn’t be successfully worked into the estate. “It’s neutral without being a blank slate,” she says. “All the rooms kind of get flipped in whatever way is conducive to the wedding or event.”
Versatility is just one reason Kylee believes the Sorenson Estate is gaining popularity. She also credits the estate’s scenic, distinct location for drawing in event planners. “Before we came about, people mainly went to ballrooms for their weddings and events,” Kylee says. “There weren’t a ton of unique spaces.”
Sorenson offers a different brand of elegance, striking a balance between extravagant ballrooms and rustic barn venues. While the indoor space is sleek, old-growth trees line the front driveway. The vast majority of events incorporate the scenery alongside the house, whether by taking vows beneath the towering oak in the backyard, hosting dinners among the prairie grass, or dancing under the stars on the brick patio.
Sorenson Estate is convenient in more ways than one. In addition to providing a secluded feel within minutes of downtown, the space’s flexibility and size can accommodate all aspects of an event. Two dining rooms, a kitchen, a furnished lounge area, and two upstairs suites help encompass a variety of party functions. Kylee uses weddings as one example, explaining the advantage of being able to hold both the ceremony and reception in the same location.
“It’s one thing for guests to have to hop between the ceremony and the reception,” she says. “But for the wedding party to be able to relax and enjoy the day and have everything in one place — they’re not spending their wedding day bouncing between places.”
A relaxing and memorable experience, regardless of event type, seems to be the goal at the estate. Wes Sorenson donated the property so it could be utilized and protected simultaneously. In line with his wishes, the land is strictly preserved, but it’s also regularly enjoyed by the community.
As a result of the estate’s recent transition from private property to university grounds, distinct local ties still cling to Sorenson like confetti. Kylee recounts how one bride chose the estate for her wedding venue because she knew the Sorensons personally. During a different wedding one spring, relatives of Wes Sorenson visited to take a look at the remodeled home. Sorenson Estate is truly a piece of Columbia, lending the space a sense of community on top of a pretty façade.
The Next Event
Like many event venues, Sorenson Estate goes through annual cycles. Bookings are high in the spring and fall, but taper off in extreme temperatures. Kylee hopes to keep bookings high as the years pass by raising awareness and maintaining the manor’s stylish air.
“We’ve got some different ideas to keep it fresh and revamped for all the different groups that are using our property,” she says. In order to draw in new guests, Kylee wants the estate to be a more visible option in the event space market.
“We’re four years old now, but that’s still really new compared to these other venues that have been here for years and years,” she says. “You still meet so many people that are like, ‘I had no idea that was behind those gates.’”