Once Richard M. Nixon's oldest friends planned a national monument and museum here at the birthplace of the former President. Like other presidential shrines, it was supposed to stand as a testament to a national leader.

But today the men seeking to build an impressive monument to the former President here find themselves without the money to purchase even a small section of the old nine-acre Nixon family property. The little white cottage on a grassy knoll where the 37th President was born remains in the hands of a local financially strapped school district which wants to seil the property to pay for school improvements.

The circumstances around Nixon's resignation almost three years ago are blamed here for drying up potential funds for the monument. "I just don't think the time is right yet," said Hurless Barton, chairman of the Nixon Birthplace Foundation. "Watergate and all that stuff has sort of slowed things up."

Shortly after Nixon was elected President in 1968, Barton and other longtime friends from Yorba Linda, 35 miles south of Los Angeles, sought to purchase the birthplace site. Their goal was to recreate the orange and lemon ranch owned by Frank Nixon, the former President's father, at the time of Nixon's birth in 1913.

Now Barton, an 81-year-old cousin and longtime friend of Nixon, has lowered his sights and is seeking eventually to purchase the home and less than two acres around it. Today a chicken coop and children from the adjacent Richard Nixon School clutter up the birthplace's front yard.

The only thing marking the Nixon birthplace are metal plaques and a small stone marker. The stones, gathered by the Birthplace Foundation, come from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It was completed earlier this month.

Foundation members claim their efforts have the full support of the Nixon family. Repeated calls made to Nixon's office in San Clemente were not returned.

Barton said he hopes that the foundation, which has spent some $20,000 on the birthplace site so far, will someday be able to purchase the home and fill it with memorabilia from Nixon's early days. But land prices in Yorba Linda, where the population has doubled to 25,000 in the last 10 years, are soaring, and Barton admits an estimated $100,000 price tag goes far beyond the foundation's current financial capacity.

"Property is getting so high here I don't know if we'll have enough money to buy it," Barton said. Yorba Linda School Superintendent Sterling Fox said his financially strapped school district is not interested in giving it away.

Representatives of the Birthplace Foundation have been talking to city officials here about finding alternate ways to fund the monument. Assistant City Administrator Brian Johnson said the city is investigating possible county, state and federal funding sources.

"We will do our best to seek grants like from the historical society," Johnson said. "They have money available, but we don't know how much."

However long it takes others to soften their views on the Nixon presidency, most people in Yorba Linda seem proud of the accomplishments made by the local country boy who made it to the pinnacle of world power.

"This is a very, very conservative town," said Jim Arkison, editor of The Yorba Linda Star, the local paper. "The only opposition to Nixon here is strictly private. Every once in a while his name will come up in conversation and they'll say, 'that SOB.' But there's never any public outery."

Ultimately the leaders of the Birthplace Foundation are counting on the loyalty of local residents to make their dream come true.

Hurless Barton said as he raked the lawn in front of the Nixon cottage. "That's because we realize Richard Nixon never stole a dime in Washington or committed any crime except what they say happened in Watergate. And I don't know if that's true."