Nadine Winter, chairman pro-tem of the D.C. City Council, stood in the District Building in her long, pink chiffon evening gown and an orchid corsage and surveyed the yards of crepe paper and balloons down the hallways. "We wanted something that Walter and Sterling could remember as more than punch and cookies," she said.

Indeed, last night's reception to honor former mayor Walter E. Washington and former City Council chairman Sterling Tucker was a lot more than punch and cookies.

The otherwise drab hallways of the District Building were filled with red and white (for Valentine's Day) and more than 1,000 guests. A huge banner strung across the entrance by the ceremonial stairs read "A Tribute to Walter Washington, Sterling Tucker." The letters were a foot high and the 't' in Washington had little sparklers shooting from it.

Meats, cheeses, fruit and cookies were heaped on trays, and there was a champagne fountain. A cake bore likenesses of Washington and Tucker etched in icing and framed by Valentines.

And to top it all, the hosts for this occasion were Mayor Marion Barry and the full D.C. City Council.

"Why not?" said beaming Council Chairman Arrington Dixon in tuxedo and white carnation. "Sterling Tucker and Walter Washington made great contributions and moved on. We're a different kind of government. We're trying to build on the past contributions of Tucker and Washington."

Washington's city hall was dressed up last night in a way that it has seldom been before. With fanfares from the U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps and the formal dress of most of those present, the affair was reminiscent of social galas to which many blacks in the city have begun going in large numbers only since the advent of home rule.

The annual midwinter dinner of the once clubby and WASPish Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade was one such occasion that quickly came to mind.

Throughout the day, there were grumblings from city politicians and their aides about how the whole idea seemed a bit much -- black ties and long dresses for a reception in the hallway of the District Building on a week night when several more inches of snow might be on the way.

"This is Nadine's thing," one council member said earlier yesterday, shaking his head, looking up at the tuxedo hanging on a rack in his office and shrugging his shoulders.

But Winter said the pomp was appropriate. "Black folks go to the Board of Trade dinners in the middle of the week and now it's supposed to make a difference because this is at the District Building," she said.

"For the two most prestigious men in the District of Columbia, it adds something to what we are trying to say by having this a black-tie affair."

Former council member Douglas E. Moore had come to the District Building in his tuxedo Tuesday night, only to discover that he had his dates confused. Last night Moore, who is running in a special May 1 election, for Barry's old council seat, staked out a strategic spot near the champagne fountains and set up an impromptu, one-man receiving line, greeting all who passed by with a hearty handshake and a grin.

"I can't put all this together," said Phil Ogilvie, a member of Barry's transition team, holding two empty champagne glasses. "The guests are all so different. There are the council members, the people from Barry's staff, people who were on Washington's staff. There are a number of people from the ANC (Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners). It's quite a variety."

Winter said that was the way it was supposed to be. "You've got people poor and rich here," she said.

"We don't do enough honoring people who've made contributions to us as blacks," said Bud Ward, a Marriott vice president. "I get a lot of invitations to things like this, for people from different organizations and that's nice. But it's not done enough for blacks.Some people think it's hokey. But I don't. I think Marion Barry has started a whole new Camelot here in this city, a whole new thrust of people."

The party and the jazz music of RAP Inc. stopped long enough for the tribute to become serious for awhile. Two huge plaques of Washington and Tucker were unveiled and will be hung in the District Building later. They were inscribed "First Elected Mayor" and "First Elected Council Chairman." Washington and Tucker received ceremonial keys to the building and scrap books of congratulatory letters, including one from President and Mrs. Carter.

Carter characterized Tucker and Washington as "front-line advocates for home rule" in the District. The president said Tucker, now an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Washington, a lawyer in private practice, had made "tireless efforts to make this city a showcase of enlightened city leadership."

The affair provided Tucker, Washington and Barry -- who at times were bitter political rivals in last year's election -- an opportunity for some good-natured ribbing about each other's new roles.

Barry announced that he has just prepared a "mind-blowing budget" supplement for submission to the city council. A grinning Tucker reveled with delight at the thought of being council chairman again so he would have the opportunity to cut the Barry budget.

Washington conceded a lack of humility to the praises about his contribution to home rule in the District. "I've gone past the days when I say, 'Oh no, it was a group of us.' I know who it was," he said. "I know all the blood and sweat."

But after the quips and the cracks, Washington turned the elder statesman, without even changing his tone of voice. "I understand that I was not able to do everything," he said. "The new mayor and the new chairman said they are going to take the city to new heights, and we should all support that.

"Sterling and I have put our shoulders to the wheel, and now we want Marion and Arrington to stand on our shoulders and take the city forward."