Ty Burr
March 22, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

It’s the most famous American home after the White House. It may be the secret center of religious life in America. But the thing most people notice when they first actually behold Graceland is how small the place is. Sitting on a 13.8-acre parcel in Memphis’ Whitehaven section, Elvis Presley’s home and final resting place looks a lot like any other good-size Southern Colonial suburban home built in the 1930s. And when Elvis first moved in he was retrenching.

When Presley bought the 23-room manor at 3764 South Bellevue Boulevard on March 19, 1957, he was fleeing, after less than a year, the first home he had bought for his family with the rewards of success. Neighbors on Memphis’ posh Audubon Drive had objected to the fans that thronged the block, and to Elvis’ mother, Gladys, hanging laundry in the backyard. Graceland, by contrast, was in a rural area of gas stations and honky-tonks. Still, it was good enough for a rockabilly parvenu, and Elvis paid slightly more than $100,000 — $40,000 in cash — to the original owner, Ruth Moore. (The house had been named for her Great-Aunt Grace — not, as many believe, for Elvis’ mom.) That same week, RCA released what was to become Presley’s seventh top 10 record, ”All Shook Up.”

Today, Graceland looms so vast in our pop culture — the site of a great American decline, a place where kitsch and longing fuse with nearly elemental purity — that the physical plant simply can’t compete. In a sense, most of the myth resides across the street, in the 18-acre museum and shopping complex called Graceland Plaza. Graceland itself is merely a reliquary, proof that the thing actually happened. Managed by a trust for Presley’s daughter and sole heir, Lisa Marie, the house receives more than 700,000 visitors annually from all corners of the globe. The faithful file past Elvis’ grave in the Meditation Garden, past the statue of Jesus with the word ”Presley” inscribed beneath it, into the Big Room, where the painted portrait of the King against a resplendent sky is rumored by the truly devout to have healing powers. John Strausbaugh, author of E: Reflections on the Birth of the Elvis Faith, calls the site ”the American Lourdes.” Paul Simon used it as an image of racial, musical, and personal harmony. Its name — promising a peace its owner never achieved — grows more weirdly apt with every year.

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