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The house that Babs built

The folks who run the Ramirez Canyon Park, formerly the Barbra Streisand Center for Conservancy Studies, formerly the Barbra Streisand Malibu estate, are sick of the Graceland comparisons.

They want everyone to know that this is not a tourist attraction in the traditional sense. No tram ride, no gift shop (although a few pine cones and postcards are for sale), no snack bar (although the admission price includes a very nice tea), no huge, sun-scorched parking lot.

Tours are held only Wednesdays, and carpooling is required. Local regulations allow them only 40 round trips a day on the winding road to the estate. The docents are trained to avoid any discussion of Streisand's personal life, to draw attention instead to the finer details of four of the five houses on the 22-acre property _ the Bakelite sculptures in the art deco house, the hand-singed shingles of the Barn where Streisand lived, the bleached pine of Barwood, the bungalow she converted into a semi-treehouse to use as an office.

But no one thinks a person would pay 30 bucks to see some fairly eccentric buildings and a copse of lovely sycamores. The folks that keep the carpools necessary and the waiting lists weeks long are here because of Barbra. Because they loooove Barbra.

"I must tell you that Barbra Streisand was a perfectionist," says Sandee Bickart, who led a recent tour of about 35 people, mostly women, many old enough to have seen Funny Girl in its first Broadway run. She will mention Streisand's perfectionism at least a dozen times in the course of an hour and a half, and every time she does, the crowd will murmur and heads will nod in rueful, fond agreement, like family members discussing a headstrong but favored niece.

They nod when they hear about the stream Streisand had moved about 100 yards so she could have a nice lawn. Such a perfectionist. They nod when the star's penchant for old lace is mentioned, when her love of thrift shops is noted.

The park formerly known as the Barbra Streisand Center is not so much a tourist attraction as it is an unexpected nexus of the powers that have shaped Southern California as certainly and specifically as the surf has shaped its coastline.

Celebrity, wealth, philanthropy, ecology, zoning laws, crotchety neighborhood activism, the Coastal Commission, the vagaries of fashion and good old-time voyeurism all come together on the lovely stone patio outside the Barn, which is where, according to Bickart, "Barbra liked to entertain her really close friends."

In the beginning there were 7 acres at the end of Ramirez Canyon Road and the Barn in which lived Jon Peters, hairstylist. Streisand moved in with Peters in 1974, and over the years the two converted a stable into the Peach House and purchased three adjacent properties, 15 additional acres in all. By the late '80s, Peters and Streisand had split, and Streisand put the property on the market for $19-million. No sale.

In 1993, she decided to donate it to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and take a $15-million tax writeoff. But she made no endowment for its upkeep, and the property costs about $160,000 a year to maintain. So the conservancy offered tours and rented the grounds for weddings, photo shoots, even movies.

But the neighbors complained. Loudly, bitterly and in court. Which is why the tours are so restricted. At some point during the litigious years, Streisand took her name off the establishment.

But what provides the electricity of the tour is the knowledge that this is not Graceland or Hearst Castle or any number of other famous home tours.

It's almost impossible to muster the half-envious ridicule that often fuels the voyeurism associated with these kinds of tours, even when confronted with a 4-foot-high, apricot onyx fireplace.

Instead, one finds oneself listening to Bickart's thumbnail histories of the Chumash Indians, Malibu and Bakelite, lulled by the murmur of the rerouted brook, picturing 500 luminaries gathering on the meadow (constructed from the dirt removed during the terracing of her orchard) for the One Voice concert Streisand gave to raise money for then-presidential nominee Bill Clinton.

And imagining what it would be like to live in a place like this, to be a person like that, a movie star, an icon, someone who replanted redwoods and rerouted a stream, someone who built a whole house just for her art. Someone who then turned around and gave the whole kit and caboodle away.