WHEN A bullhorn on our front lawn awoke us one Saturday morning, and a wrecking ball another, we knew our days at McLean Gardens were numbered.

It became even more obvious we were living in a kind of unarmed camp -- with forsythia ambushes -- the night a pipe burst, gushing gallons of water into our storage room and 100 calls to "maintenance" brought no one. It didn't help when the roaches trooped over to our apartment from an abandoned one across the hall.

We were long gone before the official eviction notices, the offers of $10,000 and $12,000 to get out, the candlelight vigils, the clandestine middle-of-the-night meetings and the boarding up of windows.

We were one of the families who gave up early -- we lived there about two years -- in the 10-year battle of tenants to save McLean Gardens. We frankly didn't think that this collection of gentle folk, singles, families, the old -- described once by someone as "the unbeautiful people of Washington" -- would make it. The day the bullhorns and TV cameras were on our lawn I remember perfunctorily pressing into my 2-year-old son's hand a sign saying something like "Save My Home." Poignant, perhaps, for the camera, but fruitless.

When the wrecking ball leveled the dormitory, once a haven for the rootless old, I took pictures. I'm not sure why, but there they are, cynical portrayals of rubble and the American flag waving overhead near the McLean Gardens entrance at Wisconsin and Porter. The talk then -- there was always talk of one scheme or another -- was of razing the entire complex of red brick and rolling hills and turning it into a stiff conclave of high rises and boutiques.

We loved the place -- when we could forget the desultory maintenance, encroaching roaches and a heating system that could parboil you in the winter. Because it was impossible to regulate radiators, temperatures inside soared into the 90s (can you imagine then-owner CBI Fairmac Corporation's fuel bill?), and even on the coldest days windows were flung wide open all over the grounds.

We still chuckle about the frosty Sunday morning a desperate newcomer pounded on our door, clad in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt. He was red and perspiring, with a look of absolute incredulity on his face. "Can't we," he gasped, "can't we do anything about this heat?" The answer, of course, was no.

But despite all that -- and there were a lot of despites for us with a growing family -- we had a sense of soldity and community at McLean Gardens we hadn't experienced in apartment living anywhere else in the city, inlcuding a Capitol Hill townhouse, a luxurious Northwest highrise and a Southwest cooperative.

McLean Gardens was authentic, not only in such things as 12-inch masonry walls and window sills deep enough to hold huge geranium pots, but in its population. This was real Washington, with a genuine mixture of races, ages, occupations and incomes, not just a city planner's stick-figure model of what might be.

My son played with two beautiful little girls from Sierra Leone whose father was an embassy chef, rode Big Wheels with a tow-headed son of a professor and chased footballs with the offspring of a Filipino photographer. A Japanese family cultivated the prize-winning garden -- a wonder of cabages and zinnias -- and helped everyone who came near.

Late one night, answering a light tap, we opened our door to a very old and crippled woman. She had made her way laboriously with her cane across the parking lot to tell us our car lights were on.

And about 8 o'clock Christmas Eve the pounding of footsteps down that scarred back stairway brought Jack Koczela -- chairman of the tenants' group, now the McLean Gardens director of operations and community development -- to our door with freshly-baked cranberry bread. We had met him once.

The place worked. And whether or not we lived there, the thought of breaking up that solid -- buildings and people -- community left us feeling, what can I say, except sick. The day our moving van pulled away, we knew we were going to a more sterile place, albeit with water pipes intact. We wished them well. Going Back

Cut. Three years later. An invitation to tour model rooms in the new McLean Gardens Limited Partnership. The tenants, that tenacious band of about 160 (dwindled from a high of about 2,800), had won. They'll have a home there, and have a say in everything (with 27.5 percent ownership) that goes on. After nearly unbelievable maneuvers on all sides, the money had been raised.

But I dreaded going. What if they had ruined the place? Turned it into a prissy development with keep-off-the-grass signs and do-not-touch figurines? How about its limestone foyers and solid oak floors? Would my oak tree, on which the squirrels watched us watch them eat their breakfast, still be there?

Well, Evalyn Walsh McLean -- she of the now-Smithsonian's Hope Diamond, and seller of the once-fabulous estate -- could promenade on those grounds and feel at home. And so could I -- of no diamonds, but with an inexplicable rootedness there.

The Italian statuary -- gloriously decadent nymphs either contemplating a bacchanal or recovering from one -- is there, as are the fountains of the McLeans' palatial Friendship House. And so is the simple flagpole, erected in 1941 after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt talked Evalyn Walsh McLean (over after-dinner brandy) into selling 48 acres of wooded parkland, fountains and gardens. Roosevelt, who is said to have contributed to the designs himself, wanted to provide high-quality apartments for wartime military and professional personnel.

The estate's stone wall with its lion's head watering trough is there and working, and so is the 1943 Defense Homes Corporation cornerstone. "The aristocrat of wartime housing's" original solid brass locksets are preserved, as are the mailboxes. I couldn't believe the sheen on the one that was painted over when it was ours.

There are the same iron railings and hand-carved wood. The hand-cut limestone entry terraces are intact, now made a bit more grand with small ornamental Oriental rugs. My same old deep bathtub -- it will always be my tub, regardless of who lives there -- was even preserved, only now it has fancy thermostatic controls.

On and on, a proud -- and prudent -- blend of the old and new: some new and some old tile in a completely remodeled kitchen; the same closets, with new poles; the same, now polished, floors; even the original moldings taken up, sanded and replaced.

And, of course, a completely new heating and plumbing system. There's a ping-pong table now where that water pipe burst. The oak tree still stands.

Meticulous attention has been paid to both preserving and updating the red brick Colonial/Georgian buildings. There are 33 different floor plans, ranging from basic freshening and modernizing with such things as paint and new kitchens, to dramatic transformations with catherdral ceilings, lofts and 3-by-5-foot bubble skylights.

First-floor units, including former efficiencies and one- and two-bedrooms, will become duplexes, with finished expansion space in the basements (formerly storage, trash and laundry-room areas). In place of the old back stairways are space-saving circular iron stairs. The extra room is used for air-conditioning and laundry units.

The third-floor model apartment is the most striking, a study in diverging angles (from real construction beams), softly burnished wood railings and expanses of white. The loft, once merely wasted space is awash with light from the new skylights and the old Palladian (bull's-eye) windows.

As architect Rober Calhoun Smith describes it, "We just tore out the ceilings to see what was there." A lot, including some of the solidest beams around.

Says general manager, partner and engineer David Marshall, who first made a name for himself in Boston renovation and subsidy housing, "You just don't find materials like this any more, and we respect them."

As they survey the rooftops, sky and trees, and look down on the living-room below, ther's an almost audible sigh of satisfaction. "It was a challenge," says Smith, "and very interesting." No Detail Too Small

Walking through the rooms with manager Marshall, architect Smith, the tenants' Koczela, Bloomingdale's design expert Ben Flowers and his retinue of designers, is not unlike touring a much-loved home with a proud family who has had a part in the sanding of every board, the pounding of every nail. No detail is too small to point out, from the old-time bathtub plugs (kept to avoid ripping up the floors), to individual heat pumps, expected to keep monthly energy bills as low as $40.

You can imagine the people who might live there, and for good reason. Flowers had each of his staff dream up imaginary tenants who might occupy the space they were assigned.

Thus, for a single career woman, a light airy effect with a chaise lounge in the downstairs bedroom, baskets of straw flowers and a fabric-padded dining nook off the living room. For a divorced man who has custody of his son on weekends, stark blacks and whites with tweed-covered platform sofas and extra sleeping space in the loft.

The basement area playrooms for children are a crayon box of color: brilliant purples, reds and yellows.

"We feel like a family," says Marshall, an at-once jovial and intense man who strolls the place in slouchy hats and coveralls, adjusting a lantern here, a rug there. "We've all had a part in this." 'We'll Beat 'Em'

Another "family member" absent that day, but whom Marshall won't let you forget, is Wiliam P. McCulloch, III, the tousle-headed former World Bank staffer and now McLean Gardens financial adviser and a general partner, who at the last minute joined forces with the tenants to help raise the money.

"I can remember driving through Rock Creek Parkway with him when we were right down to the wire," recalls Marshall. "He said he had a $100 negative balance in his checkbook. He was quiet for a minute, and then he almost shouted, 'But they aren't going to get us -- we'll beat 'em!'"

For the tenants' $500,000 "earnest money" (for which they came up with $56,000 among themselves), McCulloch raised $150,000 from World Bank associates, $150,000 from D.C. broker David Kornblatt (now one of the general partners, representing, with Jeffrey Server, majority owner Arthur Rubloff & Co. of Chicago) and chipped in $150,000 himself by getting a note on his own property. First promised by a large D.C. bank -- he won't say which -- it was at the last minute denied. "I went to the Women's National Bank, one of the smallest in town, with the same property and got the note."

The rest, as they say, is history: subterfuge, plots, promises, defaults, dealings and counterdealings with attornies, the D.C. City Council, banks, investors, a German architectural firm, a Swiss money man, even suspicion of the Hope Diamond jinx. And always a deadline.

"All along there were two threats to this project -- greeed and stupidity," McCulloch has said. He has also said that his World Bank experiences in housing (and dealing with corrupt pressures) in the Philippines, South Korea and Nicaragua were hardly a handicap.

Estimating that profits could reach $30 million, he is openly dismayed that it was necessary to go out of the city to get financing ($56 million from Chicago's Continental Illinois Bank). "That's one of my biggest disappointments in this project. The local lenders just seemed to be too slow or too timid."

As one of his first projects, Marshall commissioned a history of McLean Gardens and the glittering -- if some times excessive and ill-fated people -- who lived there. He can recite all the family names and tell you when and how they died.

"I looked at this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he says, "and I wanted to understand."

It's clear that he and the other involved in the McLean Gardens Limited Partnership do. So far. The place is lovingly preserved. They've already received one award, from the Northern Virginia Builders Association. And of course there's going to be some money made. (The prices, like everything else on today's market, are hardly cheap.)

"No tot lots and no tennis courts," says Marshall, "but we're hoping for a grand mixture of the real Washington here."

"At McLean Gardens," said a Washington Post article of March 7, 1943, "will live generals and privates, admirals and seamen, and a great number of people in between."

And now to see if that tradition continues.

But meanwhile, they linked hands and danced together in a celebratory circle dance the night the first units were unveiled. "The young and the old, black and white, workmen and owners, the rich and not so rich," as one participant described it.