When Scarlett O'Hara descended the stairs of Tara Plantation in a Swirl of corkscrew curls, crinolines and gown, she set a standard for the ultimate in party-giving. Though it was only a movie, it was style. It was elegance. It was drama.

People still graduate, come home, marry and celebrate anniversaries. But where are the rose arbors, the balconies and those curving drives of yesteryear? Are all the trappings of a great party . . . gone with the wind?

Fortunately for frustrated Perle Mestas, within half an hour of downtown are mansions and estates with expansive grounds that can be rented for private parties. If you don't want to go out in the country, you can rent a small museum in the District.

Some of the places we found are private homes. Some are taverns or restaurants; two are mills. They all have intriguing histories that pass as clever cocktail chatter.

But hold the invitations for a few caveats.

First, looking for a place to have a party is like house-hunting, another favorite Washington pastime. Regard the manager of the Historic home as just another real-estate agent: He or she will paint the rosiest picture possible of the house. It's up to you to wonder about parking spaces for guests, the traffic noise outside the garden, the press of 90 people in one room or a fountain whose splashes drown out wedding vows.

Second, and this may be a revelation to some, a caterer isn't mandatory for a successful party. Most of the places described here don't require one. In fact, most have complete kitchens where you or your parents or your friends can cook. You could even have a pot-luck picnic on a broad lawn and ask each guest to bring something.

Deciding to do it yourself sticks you with more than fixing food: You'll have to set up tables, serve food and drinks and clean up afterward -- chores that the caterer normally takes on. Many managers will try to persuade you to use a caterer because of experiences they've had with people who said they'd take care of everything but left the house a wreck. (Some places charge security deposits for this reason.) Tidy hosts can combat prejudice by showing the manager a sensible plan for handling food preparation and clean-up. Some managers may be able to recommend maintenance people to hire.

At some of the places we found -- especially restaurants -- the customer-host pays for food and space is free. This means that while the party's going on, complete strangers are using the restaurant, too; but this sort of place may be perfect for someone with no acumen for guessing how many cold shrimp 80 people can nibble in three hours.

Leaving the menu to the professionals will save days of worry -- until the bill arrives. Unless price is no object, make sure exactly how much each item on the menu will cost. Watch out for incidentals: Some places charge $10 for a bowl of nuts.

Finally, the length of the guest list will probably decide the party's location. Many estates list their indoor and outdoor capacities, but don't be misled: If the indoor capacity is 50 and outdoor is 500, you'd better invite only 50 guests -- as any Washingtonian knowns, rain is possible any day and probable on a weekend. Renting a tent helps, but tents, dance floors and strobe lights are expensive, and you're already paying for a house. DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CAPITOL CHILDREN'S MUSEUM 800 Third Street NE, 544-2244.

People looking for lots of space will find it here. When the museum reopens after taking September off, there'll be double the current exhibit space. Your guests can put their hands on the touch-and-learn Mexican exhibit. The museum used to be the convent of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Their chapel is now the zocalo of a little ersatz Mexican village. With its high ceiling it still gives the impression of a chapel -- a churchy feeling if you decide to marry there. A caterer is required, no smoking is permitted in exhibit areas, and you rent your own chairs. The museum -- in the exhibit space and several other rooms -- would easily accommodate a reception for 750. Events can't start 'til after 6, after museum hours. There's parking in the courtyard for 40 cars, and yes, you can use the grounds in the fenced-in courtyard for anything from musicians to a confetti stand.

To rent the museum, you first pay a $25 membership fee, then negotiate the cost, in the form of a tax-deductible donation. A non-profit educational organization, for example, pays a low fee. MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART 316-322 A Street NE, 547-6222.

Your guests can wander through the galleries in the off-hours. Music is appropriate here, but not anything you can dance to. For dancing or a band, you'll have to move out to the patio, where smoking is permitted also. The museum delights in wedding ceremonies. There are no kitchen facilities, but they can arrange a caterer for you. Red wines aren't permitted: They'd leave stains if spilled on the light carpet in the galleries. Parking arrangements usually are made with the Supreme Court lot nearby. The cost is $500 for the first two hours; additional charge for subsequent hours. TEXTILE MUSEUM 2320 S Street NW, 667-0441.

The huge marble-floored foyer of the Textile Museum is a place for greeting guests and dancing. Though the museum will undergo a major renovation starting in mid-September, the foyer and two galleries will remain open in the part of the museum that's the house where founder George Hewitt Myers lived. The space accommodates about 200, but 500 fit behind the house in the formal garden of fountain and boxwoods. The kitchen is small and antiquated: There's a refrigerator and sink, but no stove, which discourages you from having anything more than a cocktail party, though a caterer isn't required. Wedding ceremonies are okay.

There's a $350 charge for three hours, and each additional hour costs about $50.No smoking in the permanent exhibition room, and no rock bands in the yard late at night. It's practically downtown, but parking isn't much problem in the evening. MARYLAND WHITE FARM MANSION Enterprise Road, Mitchelleville, 262-8904.

Built in 1939, this stately mansion is the former residence of Captain Newton White, first commander of the USS Enterprise. The rooms are unfurnished, and the first floor includes a dining room, a study, a ballroom, a large kitchen (for your or your caterer), and two enclosed porches (perfect for a bar). The house accommodates a banquet for 50 or a buffet for 150. A wide staircase and central hall has witnessed many wedding ceremonies and palatial dressing rooms on the second floor may be used by the bride and groom. The White Farm Mansion is not air-conditioned, but solid concrete walls keep the first floor cool.

The county has turned about half of the original 500-acre estate into a golf course. The terrace looks out over it, a lovely view except for the golfers. One tee is perilously close, but the manager says the golfers never interfere, and in fact many guests enjoy watching the game. When the mansion is rented for business conventions, executives usually enjoy a round of golf after their meetings.

If you're not a sports fan, you can avoid the golfers by restricting your party to the side yard. There, a thick grove of trees in a semicircle offers complete privacy and forms a scenic backdrop for a wedding ceremony. If your party is at night, the back of the house is lit up for dancing on the terrace and grass. Should the weather force you indoors, the ballroom has ample space for dancing. The management provides 14 six-foot tables, and 100 folding chairs for use indoors or out. Smoking is permitted.

The White Farm Mansion is about forty minutes from Washington, and, except for the occasional golfer, is isolated. It may be rented for a six-hour period by Prince George's County residents for $350, and by others for $500. OLD ANGLER'S INN 10801 MacArthur Boulevard, Potomac; 365-2425.

One 19th-century patron was so impressed with Old Angler's Inn that he presented the owner with a set of solid-gold fishing hooks. Built in 1860, the inn has provided travelers with food and lodging for most of its long history. Nestled against the woods, the inn is built of beautiful stone, with casement windows and stucco walls beneath exposed beams.

According to the maitre d', many couples who begin courtship at Old Angler's later return there to exchange wedding vows. In winter, the stone fireplace in the lounge is a favorite backdrop; in warm weather, couples frequently have the ceremony outside under the gazebo. However, a party at Old Angler's can't be any bigger than 30.

Reserve the lounge for cocktail parties of 15 to 20. If you want dinner, three different dining rooms are available. They are of various size, but none large enough for dancing. Menus, arranged individually, average $12 to $15 per person, plus drinks.

If you want an outdoors party you can use the small clearing around the gazebo in front of the inn. A cascading stream separates you and your guests from the rest of Old Anger's customers, but there is considerable traffic noise from the parking lot.

Use of the premises is free and the inn is available for parties any day of the week except Monday. GABRIEL'S FRENCH PROVINCIAL INN Ijamsville; 301/865-5500.

A 50-room rambling farmhouse overlooking a duck-filled pond and surrounded by 26 acres of pastureland, Gabriel's French Provincial Inn is a haven for weary urbanites. As soon as you leave I-270 (at the Urbana exit, 36 miles north of D.C.), signs beckon you to Gabriel's -- along winding roads, over a one-lane bridge, across old railroad tracks. The inn is only three miles from the highway, but gives the feeling of provincial France.

Monsieur Gabriel, who owns the restaurant and is also the chef, prides himself on quality and variety of dishes. He raises most of his own produce and livestock, so everything is frech -- from tomatoes to eggs to veal.

Built in 1862 and originally home to six Welsh families, the restaurant is available for private parties at any time. The building, actually three farmhouses joined together, holds 200 people for dinner and many more for cocktails. The large banquet room is lined with windows: In warm weather, when these are opened, the room becomes a porch. If you prefer air conditioning, you may want to use one of the smaller dining rooms. There is room for dancing in both areas.

Menus for private parties are arranged individually. A typical party meal from soup to dessert costs about $10 per person, plus drinks. The house specialty is fresh Allegheny brook trout Gabriel.

If you want your celebration to last the weekend, you and a few of your guests can spend the night. Like the rest of the inn, they are modestly furnished and very European, with bathrooms on the hall.

If you want a truly rustic atmosphere for your party, ask M. Gabriel about Burgundy Farm, nine miles from the restaurant. The 120-acre farm is available for square dances or hayrides. For $5 per person, M. Gabriel will barbeque chickens. He even does bullroasts. Use of grounds is free. MONTPELIER MANSION Muirkirk Road, Laurel; 277-2200.

Montpelier Mansion was the 18th-century home of the Snowdens, a wealthy Welsh family who owned Patuxent Iron Works and, at one time, more than 20,000 acres of land. Legend has it that Major Thomas Snowden, who built the mansion, was declared "sinfully wealthy" by the Quaker church when he married the heiress Ann Ridgely; he was not welcome in church until after he freed 100 of his slaves.

Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the Georgian mansion has 22 rooms, 10 fireplaces and several chandeliers. For parties, the entire house is yours. The two largest rooms, the library and the east wing, can each seat 50. Buffet tables can also be put in the gentleman's study, where guests can try to find the panel hiding a secret staircase where the Snowden hid from unfriendly Indians or British soldiers.

The mansion has a small kitchen, but no stove. A caterer is required at Montpelier and the management can suggest several. Because of the house's advanced age, neither smoking nor dancing is permitted indoors. Bands can play on the veranda, however, and guests can dance on the grass or on a wooden dance platform, if you care to rent one. If you book a band, make sure you have a back-out clause in case of rain. You also may need to rent tables and chairs, though a few are provided.

The grounds surrounding the mansion are acclaimed for the maze of English boxwoods, some over nine feet tall, dating back to the 1700s. The house is not air-conditioned.

For parties of fewer than 55, the mansion is available for $225 to Prince George's County residents and for $325 to non-county residents. If there are between 55 and 100 people, it costs $350 for county residents and $500 for others. OLD ADELPHI MILL 8402 Riggs Road, Adelphi; 277-2200.

Two brothers, Issacher and Machlon Schofield, built the Adelphie Mill in the summer of 1796. Ships used the Northwest branch of the Anacosta to float grain to the mill from farms in Virginia and Maryland. Today the river is but a gentle stream, and the water wheel dismantled. The mill, considered the largest and oldest hereabouts, was restored in the 1950s.

Residents of either Montgomery County or Prince George's County can throw their next party down by the old mill stream. The mill offers flexible space for up to 200 people. Each of the three floors is a single large room. A few stone gears and two oversized doorways are the only reminders of the mill's past. Except for several tables and chairs, the building is bare and thus easily adaptable.

In a small kitchen in the basement, you can prepare food yourself. A caterer is not required. The building is heated but not air-conditioned: Thick stone walls are enough insulation on all but the hottest of summer days. Smoking is permitted.

It costs $100 to wed and hold a reception at Adelphi Mill. The charge for any other social gathering is $10 on weekdays and $25 on weekends. The only restriction is the Cinderella rule: The party has to end by midnight. ROCKVILLE CIVIC CENTER MANSION Edmonston Drive and Baltimore Road; 424-3184

Built in the late 18th century, this mansion was once owned by Richard Johns Bowie, Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals. In 1957 Rockville purchased the mansion, then known as "Glenview," from Montgomery County Historical Society. Today the mansion has been restored and furnished in an 18th-century mode. In a gallery on the second floor, local artists exhibit.

The first floor has several stately rooms -- a dining room, a library, a conservatory, a lounge, a ballroom that may be used for dancing -- and a large kitchen. If you like, you can prepare the food yourself. Tables for the buffet and bar are provided. The mansion is air-conditioned.

Outside are formal gardens of boxwoods and bicentennial roses. Flagstone steps lead down a hill to a fountain in a perfect aisle for bride and groom. Splashing water in the fountain may drown out the vows, so bring an amplifier if you want the guests to hear what's happening.

The mansion may be reserved for private parties any day. Sundays, parties can't begin before 5:30 because the house is open to the public earlier in the day. Since the gardens are situated between tennis courts and a park, you may want to schedule your party after dusk anyway. The rental fee is $350 for city residents and $550 for anyone else. VIRGINIA SULLY PLANTATION 3601 Sully Road, Chantilly; 437-1794.

Northern Virginia's first Congressman, Richard Bland Lee, built Sully Plantation in 1794. The Fairfax County Park Authority restored Sully in 1975 and furnished it in Federal period antiques. The three-bay house resembles the architectural style of early-19th century Philadelphia. Guests can tour the plantation if you make prior arrangements: $1.50 for adults and 75 cents for children.

Though you can't use the house for partying, you can rent a tent and have an outdoor party here any time of day or evening. Most of the land is open meadow, with small formal gardens lined with brick paths.

County residents pay $50 for the grounds, and non-county residents pay $75. Additional fees: $20 for each hour over four hours, hourly wages for two staff members and a refundable security deposit. RIVERFARM 7391 East Boulevard Drive, Mount Vernon; 768-5700.

When George Washington was 27, he bought River Farm for 1,200 pounds sterling (about $2,880), making it one of five in his Mount Vernon estate. For over 100 years Washington's descendants owned River Farm, and today the American Horticultural Society's national center occupies 27 acres of the original farmland. As one might expect, the AHS has taken good care of the grounds, growing giant walnut trees, boxwoods, magnolias, wisteria and rose arbors. Guests can wander through the gardens and to the edge of the Potomac for a view of Washington Monument.

During private parties the first floor of the air-conditioned house is open. Furnished with elegant pieces from the Georgian period, the drawing room has one striking modern feature: a picture-window view of the lush grounds sloping down to the river. The ballroom is spacious enough for serving a meal to 50. Tables and chairs are provided and the kitchen is equipped with modern appliances.

Though it's hard to imagine a more beautiful setting, River Farm does have a few drawbacks. It can be rented only weekdays from 9 to 4, and the parking lot is small. No wedding receptions are allowed. The serenity of the estate if frequently interrupted by planes from National, distracting reminders that this is the 20th century. Rent is $100 per hour. IVANS FARM INN 1696 Chain Bridge Road, McLean; 346-8000.

With its half dozen outlying buildings, Evans Farm Inn is very like an old plantation, with barns, a mill, a cookhouse, a smokehouse and a country store.

In the inn, four private rooms are available for parties. All are air-conditioned. The largest, the Plantation Room, can accommodate 150 for a banquet or 225 for a buffet. The room opens onto a patio, usually used for dancing or for the bar. If you want your party a bit farther from the restaurant, the cookhouse has a patio and room for about 80, but it's not air-conditioned. It's $50 to rent.

Outside, Evans Farm lives up to its name, with goats, horses, sheep, pigs and peacocks. A small pond is home to a family of ducks and several geese. Flowers bloom from the first daffodils of early spring to the last mums of fall. The pastoral scene would be perfect, were it not for cars zooming by on Route 123. It's possible to get fairly far away from the traffic by climbing to the hilltop, where, if you wish, you can be married. If a ceremony is performed on the grounds, there's a $50 charge.

A party at Evans Farm Inn costs from $6.75 to $12.50 per person, depending on the menu selected, plus alcoholic beverages, gratuity, and sales tax. COLVIN RUN MILL PARK 10017 Colvin Run Road, Great Falls, 759-2771.

In the early 19th century, Colvin Run Mill was a major link connecting rich farmlands of the Shenandoah Valley to the busy maritime port of Alexandria. Today Leesbury Turnpike (Route 7) runs past the mill, about 45 minutes from Washington. The mill works. You can still buy freshly ground buckwheat and corn meal there, and you can tour the mill and see the water wheel move the great gears to grind the wheat.

Fairfax County Park Authority has restored the mill, but not modernized it, and that's where partygivers run into trouble. The building is neither heated nor air-conditioned, though thick brick walls keep it cool in summer. The huge stone gears make unique conversation pieces, but only leave enough room for 75 guests. And the stairs are narrow.

There is neither kitchen nor bathroom in the mill, though there are restrooms in the nearby General Store. All food must be prepared elsewhere, but a caterer is not required. Whatever tables and chairs you need you must rent. Since the mill is open to the public during the day, parties cannot start before 5:30. Receptions for up to 75 people can be held in the miller's garden. The entire park, with its thick foliage, 19th-century buildings and little creek, is a good picnic spot.

It costs county residents $100 to rent the mill and $50 for the grounds; non-county residents pay $25 more. There's an additional fee of $20 for each hour over four hours. A refundable security deposit of from $115 to $150 is also required. Smoking isn't permitted indoors. BOYHOOD HOME OF ROBERT E. LEE 607 Oronoco, Alexandria; 548-8454.

A stately brick home built in 1795, Robert E. Lee's Boyhood Home has been furnished with rare antiques that, though not original to the house, recreate the scene that met General Lafayette and George and Martha Washington when they visited.

The house may be reserved for up to 100 people. The dining room may be used for serving light finger refreshments, but there isn't room enough to serve a complete meal. Most of the rooms are roped off to protect such furnishings as a 1791 English grandfather clock that still chimes, an 1830 piano-forte and a Latrobe stove. Rooms can be viewed by guests, and docents will answer questions.

The house does have two modern conveniences -- a kitchen for the caterer (one is required here) and window air conditioners.

If your party is outside, you'll delight in the large slate patio and garden to the back and side of the house. Both are secluded enough to muffle the street noise. There is plenty of space for a tent, and one is recommended if your guests list exceeds 100. Grape and rose arbors planted by Mrs. Lee promise a gragrant and beautiful outdoor party. However, chairs and tables for outdoor use must be rented and parking is on the street.

It's $75 an hour to rent, plus a flat fee of $75 if the dining room is used. Music is welcome, but no dancing or smoking in the house. ANCHORAGE HOUSE 603 Queen, Alexandria; 683-3705.

Mr. and Mrs. Donald Fogelsanger live in Anchorage House, but their home is yours for your party. Built in the 1790s, the house is adorned with Persian carpets, crystal chandeliers and mementos gathered by the owners on world travels. There's room for a banquet for 60 or a buffet for 200.

About a hundred guests can be served a sit-down meal outside on the terrace. Anchorage House doesn't provide tables and chairs. (Rental agencies charge about 50 cents a chair.) A tent can be attached to the house. (A large one rents for about $500.) In the heart of Old Town, Anchorage House pays the price of urban convenience in noise from Queen Street and National Airport. Parking is no problem, though, as guests use the lot of a neaby bank.

The Fogelsangers are professional caterers and can provide "anything from tea sandwiches to truffles." To test their culinary skills, you can order a box of their pastries before scheduling your party.

A party at Anchorage House ranges from $14 and up per person, depending on the menu and the staff needed to serve it. Regardless of the party's size, there's a minimum charge of $300 a weeknight and $500 on a weekend. Bring your own alcoholic beverages. Dancing and smoking are permitted. CARLYLE HOUSE 121 North Fairfax, Alexandria; 549-2997.

After years of restoration, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority opened Carlyle House in January, 1976. The mansion, once known as Alexandria's grandest home, was built in 1752 by John Carlyle, a Scottish emigrant whose financial success was assured when he married Sarah Fairfax of Belvoir Manor.

It's sparsely furnished, an advantage during a party, and guests may wander through the house, which accommodates 150. The grand hallway and staircase provide a wedding setting. It's completely air-conditioned, a rare find in historic homes.

The window panes are a poor imitation of 18th-century glass. They're thick and rippled and blur the view. Just as well: To the rear of the house stands an old factory with broken windows and to one side an 1806 bank is undergoing restoration.

The "urban garden" behind Carlyle House hasn't yet blossomed into its own. The seedlings need a few more years. But dancing on the terrace at night, it's easy to ignore Lee Street and the factory and imagine that the Potomac still laps at garden's edge, as it did in Carlyle's time.

The house may be rented from 6 p.m. to midnight for $375, with an additional $100 returnable security fee. Three serving tables and 40 chairs are provided. However, all food must be prepared elsewhere as there's no kitchen. Guests can use a nearby city parking lot, open to the public in the evening. As with most other homes of this era, neither dancing nor smoking is permitted indoors. GADSBY'S TAVERN 138 North Royal, Alexandria; 548-1288.

Described in the 18th century as "the finest public house in America," Gadsby's Tavern still serves colonial food such as Old Virginia Brunswick stew, pecan pie and, on Monday nights, a lavish buffet called a "groaning board." In Old Town across from city hall, the tavern has been designated a registered national historic landmark.

To party where six U.S. presidents have had receptions, you may reserve one of several dining rooms, restored to the way they looked in colonial days. They vary in size: The largest, the ballroom, accommodates 100 for dinner or 150 for cocktails. All the rooms are air-conditioned. Naturally, you can dance in the ballroom.

Gadsby's also has an outdoor courtyard that can hold 50 for dinner. Since the courtyard is terraced, wedding ceremonies can be seen easily by guests.

If the courtyard is reserved, Gadsby's requires that the ballroom also be reserved in case of rain. It's $175 to rent the ballroom. The cost of the meal depends on the number of guests and the menu selected. You are not restricted to dishes offered on the menu, but the groaning board is a popular choice for parties. For a small additional fee, guests can tour the lodging rooms once visited by Lafayette, John Paul Jones, Aaron Burr and Francis Scott Key. LEE-FENDALL ALL HOUSE 429 North Washington Street, Alexandria; 548-1789.

This mansion was home to 30 Lees, from 1785 until 1903.

When Lee-Fendall House is rented, the usual public tours are called off. Guests can wander freely through several rooms -- the dining room (where buffets for 100 can be set up), the enclosed porch (where guests can grab a smoke), the front hallway and staircase (where small ceremonies are performed), and a second floor bedroom (usually used for the bar). A third-floor dressing room is reserved for the bride. There isn't enough space indoors for dancing. You're welcome to use the oven and sink in the kitchen, but not the refrigerator, so bring an ice chest. Docents clad in colonial costumes will answer any questions your guests may have about the other rooms, roped off but visible.

For those who plan outdoor parties, the Lee-Fendall House is less than ideal. Though an immense magnolia tree and a garden of 19th-century variety roses are captivating, the small lawn faces a constant flow of traffic on Washington Street.

The rental fee for the house is $50 an hour. For more than 125 guests, there's a 50 cents per hour additional charge.