Michael Jackson transformed Neverland Ranch much as he did music

It was while I was bumpily making my way across a rope bridge in a quiet corner of Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch on Thursday morning -- next to an elaborate treehouse crowned with a ship's wheel, and overlooking a bronze sculpture of smiling children -- that I finally figured out what the late entertainer's compound represents from an architectural point of view.

Jackson didn't commission Neverland's Tudor-style main house. That 13,000-square-foot structure, which sits nestled under a collection of magnificent oak trees, was built in 1981 by real estate developer William Bone, from whom the singer bought the property for $19.5 million in 1987. But the changes Jackson made to the 2,600-acre property over the years -- notably, adding a slew of kid-friendly attractions -- markedly changed the place, softening it and shrinking it to less than full-grown scale.

At the height of his popularity, Jackson bent the music industry toward an androgynous, perpetually childlike model of superstardom. He managed a similar trick in transforming the architecture of this classic Santa Barbara County ranch property.

Instead of symbolizing the broad-shouldered, Reaganesque masculinity of other ranches, this ranch, in Jackson's hands, became somehow neutered and sexualized at the same time. In the process, Jackson's Neverland offered an alternative model for the celebrity compound -- both connected to and held at arm's length from the scrum of Hollywood and the entertainment business.

As part of a group of journalists granted access to Neverland, I drove onto its extensive grounds just after 9 a.m. Inside I found a nearly bottomless supply of what I'd come in search of: architectural symbolism, for starters, along with some sense of how Jackson spent his days here.

Ranch architecture, low-slung and embracing the outdoor landscape, is typically about easy contact, even symbiosis, with nature. For President Reagan, who set up a Western White House in the hills just south of Neverland, the ranch was a place to roll up his sleeves and chop wood -- and to pose for photographs chopping wood, taking advantage of his Hollywood savvy to burnish his outside-the-Beltway credentials. The same was true for President George W. Bush and his compound in Crawford, Texas.

For William Randolph Hearst, meanwhile, whose San Simeon estate is about 100 miles north of Neverland, the California coast was a place to show off his collected treasures, framed precisely by architect Julia Morgan, and to throw outrageous, gin-soaked parties for his movie-star friends.

Jackson was happier playing video games in a large room overlooking his sunken tennis court, reading the volumes he stockpiled on trips to bookstores in Los Angeles or watching movies inside the free-standing theater he commissioned. Ultimately, of course, it became impossible to tell which of the amenities added to Neverland were designed to please the young cancer patients and other kids Jackson invited and which to please the kid-like Michael himself.

After he was twice accused of molesting boys at the ranch, the design touches Jackson added to Neverland could be seen in a darker, even menacing light. I found it impossible to look at the drawer pulls in the shape of baseballs and basketballs that I discovered on the second floor of the main house, or the invoice for an order of computer games (dated 1999) I found in the carpeted attic, and not think of those accusations.

At first it was odd to see Neverland at ground level. As the quintessential celebrity retreat for the age of 24/7 media, the architecture of Jackson's compound is familiar to most of us -- but only as pictured from the air.

The train station Jackson added to the property, with its twin echoes of Victorian and Disneyland architecture and its front lawn of manicured flowers in the shape of a clock face, is the most recognizable building on the property, even though it was seldom used by Jackson or his guests. It has become Neverland's one architectural landmark -- usually pictured in the three-quarter, slightly vertiginous angle produced when you photograph a building from a helicopter. It is also now viewable from above on Google Earth.

The estate's handsome main house, by contrast, is rarely photographed because it is shrouded from above by oak trees. On Thursday, its front steps were dotted with publicists, photographers and camerapeople discussing the best vantage point from which to shoot its multi-gabled facade.

The activity at the main house was a quieter version of the scrum of media and mourners outside Neverland's main gates. The scene there was a remarkable indication of the extent to which the celebrity-death media cycle has created its own forms of temporary architecture. The satellite trucks and their attendant equipment, lined up next to tents pitched by Jackson fans hoping for a glimpse inside the gates, created an instant city.

The gates themselves were nearly hidden underneath piles of flowers and handwritten signs of mourning, all of it reminiscent of the makeshift memorials that appeared in London after Princess Diana's death in 1997.

In the shaded front drive between the main house and Neverland's manufactured lake, CNN staffers were scrambling to find a place to set up Larry King for his live show later in the day. A couple of them referred to the talk-show host as "Elvis." As in, What time will Elvis be in the building?

It was another reminder of how much this place, for all its outward debt to J.M. Barrie and Willy Wonka, has in common with Graceland -- and how much speculation we are likely to hear in the coming days about whether the Los Angeles investment firm Colony Capital will ever open Neverland to the public as a shrine to Jackson's life and music. (Colony, having bought Jackson's loan a year ago, controls the property.)

Once I drove out along the train tracks toward the back of the estate, however, an eerie calm took hold -- with the exception of the landscaping crews swarming over the flower beds and the helicopters buzzing overhead.

Back there, the place looked dismantled, which makes sense since Jackson stopped living here following his 2005 trial in Santa Maria. The carousel and the Ferris wheel have been taken down. The monkeys have been removed from their elaborate spired cages, the goats from the petting zoo. A locked tour bus sat under a shed that looked to have been built to keep it shaded.

There are countless signs at Neverland of Jackson's attempts to put his architectural stamp on the estate. Some of them suggest a dedicated interest in architecture -- and the design bookstore Hennessey + Ingalls in Santa Monica was said to be a Jackson favorite -- but there is no coherent theme. Nothing matches. A few switch plates in the main house are decorated with Renaissance-style putti. The frilly gazebos might have been lifted from a Georgia plantation.

And because so many of the buildings Jackson added are essentially architectural follies -- open to the air and quickly constructed -- they feel decidedly impermanent. Those that haven't been kept up have decayed quickly.

Neverland's main house is in very good shape, as is the station, the guesthouse and a good deal of the garden. But elsewhere, the estate has the look of an abandoned amusement park. Its impresario -- who always straddled the line between master of ceremonies and paying customer -- hasn't been here for years, and now he's gone for good.