A Washington institution died last week when Garfinckel's filed for bankruptcy protection -- another casualty of the greed, corporate plundering and shell-game financing that have crippled or destroyed so many companies in recent years.

Last week's abrupt end to 85 years of retailing history had been anticipated for months, but realistically Garfinckel's suffered a mortal blow a decade ago when the first in a series of corporate raids and upheavals in management began.

In the final analysis, however, Garfinckel's decade-long struggle to survive failed because it was no longer able to keep pace in a rapidly changing and fiercely competitive market. It's possible that without the burden of debt left over from the last change in ownership three years ago, Garfinckel's might have survived. Handicapped as it was, however, Garfinckel's simply was overwhelmed by the competition in a saturated retail market.

With retail sales generally flat everywhere and the economy in metropolitan Washington wading through a slowdown, it was only a matter of time before Garfinckel's demise would become official.

It certainly isn't the first casualty of a shakeout in the regional or national retail sector, only the most notable in recent times. Certainly it won't be the last casualty of the retail wars in metropolitan Washington. Even as longtime Garfinckel's customers and employees mourn its passing, major national retail chains with outlets in the Washington area are struggling with huge amounts of debt and the aftershocks of ill-advised takeovers.

To be sure, Garfinckel's fall is far from being the sad tale of a single retailer that fell upon hard times. Its collapse has far-reaching implications for local retailing in general and for downtown Washington's retail core in particular.

A continuing boom in office building development has revived Washington's old central business District as a thriving commercial area. But restoring stability to the retail core continues to be a major challenge for District officials. Even though doubts lingered about Garfinckel's future, local officials have been desperately seeking a fourth major department or specialty store to join the flagship stores of Hecht's, Woodward & Lothrop and Garfinckel's as anchors downtown. The loss of Garfinckel's, then, is a serious blow to attempts to strengthen the retail core.

Although D.C. officials are hopeful of seeing a major retailer locate in a new complex planned for the old Perpetual Savings headquarters site at 11th and E streets NW, the harsh reality is that major retailers continue to shun downtown for suburban shopping malls. At the same time, commercial real estate developers, operators of major department stores and city planners seem hopelessly unable to reach a satisfactory compromise on the cost and configuration of retail space in downtown Washington.

With Garfinckel's departure from downtown, its flagship store would seem to be ideally suited for a major national department or specialty store. There is little, however, that suggests a major department or specialty store chain is interested in locating an outlet in downtown Washington.

On the other hand, the May Department Stores Co., which owns the Hecht stores, is said to be interested possibly in locating another of its chains' stores in downtown Washington. Unlike its principal competitors, May at least demonstrated a commitment to downtown by moving its Hecht's flagship store to a new building in 1985. The Garfinckel's building would make an ideal location for another Lord & Taylor store, for example, should the May Co. decide the time is right to expand in the District.

But the Garfinckel's store is part of an eight-story building that sits on one of the more valuable pieces of property in downtown Washington. The property's new owner might not be willing to retain that much retail space in a building that's certain to become a prime office location.

The District's controversial retail overlay zoning plan, which would require developers in that area to reserve at least 20 percent of the usable space in a building for retail and the arts, may or may not be a factor in attracting a replacement store in the Garfinckel's building. Even if there was interest in taking over that space, the entire retail industry is at a standstill now, hemmed in by debt, sluggish sales and uncertainty about the national economy.

"I think it's bleak, indeed, for retailing downtown," observed an executive who has worked with D.C. officials in an attempt to revitalize the retail core. "The retail industry is sick and it's tough to make it in a downtown area, especially one that doesn't have a solid track record. I think it's going to be harder than before to attract a major retailer downtown, now that we've lost a retail landmark."

The executive director of the D.C. Downtown Partnership clings to a more optimistic outlook. "This is such a tragedy {but} maybe this is a kick in the shin that we need," said Michelle D. Bussard of the nonprofit, public-private organization that was formed in 1984 to manage development downtown. "Maybe this is a gift out of a crisis."

It may indeed be a gift but the collapse of the nine-store Garfinckel's chain is further proof that nothing comes easy any longer for established Washington retailers. It has become much more difficult to hold onto market share in this or any other major metropolitan market.

With so many retailers eager to take advantage of metropolitan Washington's reputation as one of the wealthier consumer markets, retailers with far fewer problems than Garfinckel's are having a tough go of it. Competition is fierce and the market is, for all practical purposes, what former Woodward & Lothrop chairman Edwin K. Hoffman called it years ago: "overstored."

Garfinckel's just didn't have what it takes -- cash, strong sales, solid inventory and customer loyalty -- to compete under those circumstances. In a span of just 10 years, it was bought and swapped like some unwanted orphan, first as part of the highly successful Garfinckel, Brooks Brothers, Miller & Rhoads Inc. chain, then as a separate company.

After fighting off attempted takeovers by Genesco Inc. and Gamble-Skogmo Inc., Garfinckel, Brooks Brothers, Miller & Rhoads yielded to intense pressure from Allied Stores Corp. Allied soon surrendered to corporate raider Campeau Corp. of Canada, which promptly sold off several of Allied's assets -- including the Garfinckel's chain -- to finance the takeover.

Some observers attribute a significant portion of Garfinckel's problems in its final years to former Raleigh Stores owner Neal Fox and his financial backers, among them Wafic Said, a major stockholder in troubled Washington Bancorp. Fox has been criticized for trying to make Garfinckel's more upscale. You couldn't possibly get any more upscale than the Garfinckel's that catered to Washington's social elite for generations. Even in Garfinckel's waning days, many of its customers defined upscale by the presence of their limousines at the entrance to the downtown store.

As one woman recently observed, "Garfinckel's had the market on customer service long before Nordstorm ever got here."

Call it upscale if you'd like, but Fox tried to apply a quick fix by going after a segment of the market that Garfinckel's never had and couldn't possibly win over, limited as it was in its ability to merchandise properly and maintain inventory at adequate levels.

Ultimately, the excessively high $95 million price Fox and his backers paid Campeau for Garfinckel's was too big a load for the company to bear and run with the crowd. If anything, Fox and his backers merely finished what began 10 years ago by burying Garfinckel's deeper in debt and not knowing the market or the competition.