WHAT used to be an elevator, Rebecca Howland filled with a box that says: "Jelly Bean Brain Award to James Watt for Service in Strip Mining Our Forests."

Lumber, plaster and other debris piled up in one corner was covered with spray paint, including a generous whoosh of gold, by Kimberly Fine.

Dark figures in various stances queue up for jobs in a mural painted by Ken Bernstein.

Jim Raglione has caused balloons to inflate on the tops of white columns.

All this and uncounted other paintings, constructions, graffiti and assemblages fill the building at 920 F St. NW, grandly called "The Ritz Hotel" but not to be confused with the Ritz Carlton or any other of the thousands of Ritz hotels functioning in various degrees of splendor around the world.

This Ritz, with its plaster falling off in clumps in all 40 rooms, its slate steps chipped and uneven, its stair rails long lost, has seen more affluent days, though not for many years. No one remembers it as ever having been very fancy, and some people have called it a former flophouse.

As art, the works in the Ritz are not likely to be confused with those in the National Gallery or any other art establishment: This is art as chaos, art in the raw, art as anger, art as destruction, art as beginnings.

For the last week or two, an ambitious group of Washington and New York art people--including an important contingent of 3- to 6-year-olds from the Children's Studio School here--have turned the old building into a temple of temporary art, or an edifice of ephemerality. It looks a lot like the late '60s revisited.

When the weather has been really cold, the art people, most of them used to suffering for their creations, worked with gloves on their hands, scarves around their necks and caps pulled over their ears. Worst of all, no one was allowed to smoke, lest it all go up in flames.

"Eventually, the manager, Steve Figliozzi, hopes to lease the space to artists for studios," said Helen M. Brunner of the Washington Project for the Arts, which instigated The Ritz. "We had looked for a building for almost a year because we wanted to invite the Collaborative Projects group down from New York to work with us."

Colabmembers, as they call themselves, have done 45 or so works in New York, including one--a "Real Estate" show-- for which they broke into a building after the landlord, the City of New York, was slow in giving a permit.

"We like to start programs, such as the Potato Wolf show on cable television cable, and the ABC No Rio art space, and let them take off by themselves," said John Morton, one of the coordinators of the project. Morton, like many of the artists, sometimes works as a painter and carpenter to make ends meet. Each of the New York artists received $100 for transportation and materials. "Washington artists have been very kind about feeding us," said Morton. "We rented a house here for a month, and bought some used furniture, and some people gave us other pieces."

Morton himself is responsible for a 10-foot high sketch of George Washington's head, and a monument figure made of polyester, resin and Fiberglas that looks very much like a bar of chocolate-covered halvah.

One room is filled with rectangles of brown paper with polemic writings by Jenny Holzer, such as: "Who was your mother that you act so bad?" and "When you expect fair play, you create an infection bubble of madness around you."

What appear to have once been interesting photographs have been cut out and made into an 18-foot-long montage, at the direction of Irving Gordon.

Here and there are works that show their creators can actually draw, such as the animal drawings by Andrea Callard. Another of the more orderly and even (surprise!) attractive works is a starry night environment--a black wall with white outlines of dog, squirrel, bug, cat and so on, spotlighted by fluourescent signal dots and surrounding a doghouse. Sculptor Tom Ashcraft, printmaker Georgia Deal and architect Eddie Bisese, all local, are the collaborators.

"We call it 'Dog dreams,' " said Deal. "After seeing the other rooms, I was relieved to find that Tom and Eddie felt the same way I did about meticulous work. I'm afraid I felt some of the other efforts were haphazard--people just came in and did things without much forethought. But I have to say, at the last minute, many things were pulled together and made sense."

The free exhibit continues through April 25, and there will be dance, music and theater performances by Washington and New York artists during the run. For times and other details, call 347-8304.