Memories of the way she lived

The canyon where Barbra Streisand resided has tourists but no hoopla

August 04, 2002|By Mary McNamara | By Mary McNamara,Special to the Sun

MALIBU, Calif. -- It isn't Graceland. They tell you that right up front. 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, and they want everyone to know that this is not a tourist attraction in the traditional sense. No tram ride, no gift shop (although there are a few pine cones and postcards 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 road to the estate. The docents are trained to avoid any discussion of Streisand's personal life, to treat her design decisions with the utmost respect, to draw attention instead to the finer details of four of the five houses on the 22-acre property.

But they're not fooling themselves: No one thinks a person would pay 30 bucks a pop to see some fairly eccentric buildings and lovely sycamores. The folks who 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 nod their heads in rueful, fond agreement like family members discussing a headstrong but favored niece.

"She still is," one woman answers the second time Bickart makes her observation, "she still is." And again, that murmur of agreement and intimacy rises from beneath the leaves of those sycamores, which still mark the original path of a stream that ran through the property, a stream Streisand had moved about 100 yards so she could have a lawn. Such a perfectionist. Heads nod when the star's penchant for old lace is mentioned, when her love of thrift shops is noted; if, as Bickart says, she hasn't read even one biography, she is the only one here who hasn't.

When, standing beside the pool of the Deco House, Bickart mentions that this is where Jason Gould, Barbra's son with first husband Elliott Gould, had his bar mitzvah party, everyone smiles and sighs. "Well, it really is the perfect place," one woman says to her friend.

Despite the devotion to its former owner, Ramirez Canyon Park truly isn't Graceland, or anything like it. Streisand's baroque quotient doesn't approach an Elvis rating, and this isn't Memphis, it's Malibu.

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.

Celebrity, wealth, philanthropy, ecology, zoning laws, 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."

The story of how the park came to be is told on every tour. In the beginning there were seven 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 nearby stable into the Peach House and bought three other 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 write-off. But she made no endowment for its upkeep, and the property costs about $160,000 a year to maintain. So the conservancy began thinking of it as a place various green groups could rent out for conferences and even retreats.

Meanwhile, they offered tours and rented the grounds for weddings, photo shoots, movies.

The neighbors complained. Loudly, bitterly and in court. Ramirez Canyon Road is narrow and winding, not intended for catering trucks and busloads of gawking out-of-towners. The people who live along the road obviously value privacy. Enter the California Coastal Commission.

Conferences were out, retreats were out, anything that required more than 40 vehicles per day to the park or a vehicle larger than a 15-seat passenger van was out. There is still an unresolved legal case involving zoning and the city of Malibu.

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