In 1931, when beautiful houses on corner lots were torn down to make way for filling stations, the citizens of Charleston, S.C., established the first historic district in America. In 1957, people tore down historic houses in Savannah to sell the highly sought Savannah gray brick and made parking lots out of the sites. After World War II, Annapolis was "a dirty, obsolete town."

But the three colonial-period cities have grown -- keeping their tree-canopied parks and their charming houses while resisting the inducements of development and surviving the devastation of fires, floods, wars and "urban removal."

Three leading preservationists -- past recipients of the Louise Dupont Crowninshield Award, the most prestigious honor in the preservation field -- were in Washington this month for a symposium in conjunction with the Thrift Shop Charities Washington Antiques Show.

The three -- St. Clair Wright of Annapolis, Leopold Adler II of Savannah and Frances Edmunds of Charleston -- agreed in interviews that tax-investment credits in the last few years as well as historic easement tax credits had been of major assistance in the preservation movement. But all were concerned about current administration proposals that would eliminate tax credits of up to 25 percent for restoring historic buildings and the Internal Revenue Service's efforts against historic fac,ade easements (in which the owners agree to preserve the fronts of their houses) in return for tax savings. The three towns are major attractions for tourists, showing the value of restoration for land value and commercial enterprises. Charleston

Frances Edmunds, director of Historic Charleston Foundation, organized in 1947, said that a 1930s filling station, originally embellished with architectural remnants scalped from houses torn down in the vicinity, is being turned into a Charleston preservation center to tell the geographic and architectural history of the city. "It looks like an English garden folly," said Edmunds.

Edmunds bristled at the suggestion that she had helped "save" Charleston. "I didn't save Charleston. No one did. It's been going on since the first plantation and commercial owners built their fine houses after the town was settled in 1670. In 1887, the mayor said his problem was that people wanted a small, great city.

"In Charleston, slums and 'gently lived-in' houses have always meshed together like the interlocking fingers on two hands," Edmunds said.

After a series of calamities, especially the earthquake of 1886 and two widespread fires, "the people had little money so they repaired rather than rebuilt." As a result, she said, "In three blocks, you can see houses of every period." From Edmunds' house in the "Peninsula City," as the old 900-acre historic district is called, she can walk to her bank in four minutes. Annapolis

Preservation in Annapolis is different from Charleston, said St. Clair Wright, chairman of the board of Historic Annapolis Inc., because Annapolis is the state capital, the seat of Anne Arundel County and the site of the U.S. Naval Academy.

"The entire historic district is only a third of a square mile with 2,000 buildings in 17 architectural styles. We have to use ingenious plans so that functions of the town continue in spite of the seven national landmarks. Because of its baroque plan of circles and radiating streets, we have commercial and residential areas cheek to jowl -- the 1763-65 Governor William Paca House next to the waterfront and the Naval Academy."

A recurring rumor has it that Annapolis was once considered by John D. Rockefeller for the sort of restoration accomplished at Williamsburg, Wright said. The Rockefeller archivist, Joe Ernst, said it isn't so, "though Rockefeller may have been asked to restore a single historic house.

Instead, the town is being restored by its own citizens, an effort that began in earnest in 1952, when Historic Annapolis Inc. was organized. "It was difficult to get people to recognize the values," said Wright, who serves without salary. She had lived in Annapolis off and on, in between living abroad with her naval officer father. "I thought Annapolis was just too good to lose."

Wright persisted, despite being caricatured in the local newspapers and having to attend planning meetings that went on until midnight. "I was most discouraged when we were trying to raise funds for Paca House a house museum and gardens . Until then, we'd never raised over $50,000. But three of our good members donated generously and we eventually raised $1,800,000."

Historic Annapolis has "furthered the restoration of some 300 houses," Wright said. The organization has used its revolving funds to buy and sell either entire houses or fac,ade easements on 60. "We've stopped the state from pulling down 12 houses and kept the Naval Academy from annexing three blocks," Wright said.

She is pleased at the recent redecoration of Government House, the governor's mansion, by Gov. Harry Hughes and Patricia Hughes.

"At the moment, the most exciting thing is the University of Maryland's citywide archeological program. At Calvert House [a new inn in a historic house] they have found 250,000 artifacts dating from 1690 to 1780, everything from buttons, toys, even velvet and lace, to bottles, complete with the liquor and ceramics. The house, once lived in by a governor of Maryland, has a hypocaust, an underground heating system, usually used for greenhouses. The inn has put a glass floor over it so it can be seen." Savannah

In all cities, a chief problem in the preservation and gentrification movement is "urban removal," the dispossession of low-income residents in historic areas. Leopold Adler II, president of the Savannah Landmark Rehabilitation Project, is best known for the innovative and successful project in Savannah, the remodeling of a large Victorian area for rent to low-income residents.

"We have rehabilitated 300 apartments for 500 low-income people, and we have 1,000 on the waiting list. The tenants pay a third of their income. They have done a fine job of keeping up the houses. We hope to do another 200. A lot of private money, including from the Carver State Bank, a black-owned group, went into the project," Adler said.

Adler, who credits the government with helping with preservation, also blames the government for the earlier decline of the center city: "With the coming of the FHA mortgage guarantees, white and black people left the city because they couldn't get loans for houses downtown."

Savannah's three-square-mile historic district burned in great fires in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, so most of the houses left were brick.

"In 1950, the suburban builders started to tear down houses for the Savannah gray brick, the soft, porous brick, usually stuccoed. They valued the brick so highly they paid 10 cents a brick for Savannah gray, as opposed to 3 cents for new brick. It was a good deal for the owner -- tear down the house for the brick and use the land for a parking lot."

The Historic Savannah Foundation was organized in 1957 by four women to save the 1815 Isaiah Davenport house. "So far, we've recycled 150 houses, buying, restoring them and reselling them," Adler said.