Marine Commandant Gen. P.X. Kelley and a group of ex-Marines have launched an "informal" tax-deductible fund drive, reportedly with a $1 million goal, to redecorate the 179-year-old Commandant's House in the Marine Barracks at 8th and I streets SE.

The Foundation for the Preservation of the Commandant's House, drafted according to guidelines laid down by Marine Corps lawyers, will operate under the umbrella of the private, nonprofit, tax-exempt Marine Corps Historical Association. The money raised will fund what Kelley this week called "continuous restoration and renovation."

"The point is," Kelley said at a party, "the house is a museum and on the historic register. I have a responsibility to maintain that house, a responsibility to 4 million Marines who have worn the eagle, globe and anchor."

Kelley, whom President Reagan named Marine Corps commandant two years ago, came under criticism in October 1983 after pronouncing himself "totally satisfied" with security arrangements that had been in place at Beirut Airport, where 216 Marines and other U.S. servicemen were killed in a terrorist bombing.

Kelley said that while government funds maintain and operate the Commandant's House (taxpayers spent $52,310 on it in 1983 and 1984), they are insufficient to provide "the special ambiance, special decor" one expects to find in such a historic structure.

"So what are we supposed to do," Kelley asked, "let it fall down?"

"For all the government cares," his wife Barbara said at the same party, "we could live in a foxhole."

Kelley is the latest of Washington's highly placed officials to seek outside money to spruce up his official residence. The private, nonprofit Tingey House Foundation, established several years ago, raises funds for comparable expenditures on the residence of the chief of naval operations at the Washington Navy Yard.

Both endeavors are similar to refurbishing projects at the White House, the Vice President's House and the State Department, since they allow tax deductions to donors.

Commandant's House, whose site was selected by Thomas Jefferson in 1801, is one of an estimated 1,000 historic structures owned by the four military services. Today, in fact, is the deadline Congress has set for the services to file reports on the structures, identifying long-term costs of renovation and making recommendations about whether to vacate them, tear them down or renovate them.

Kelley, who two months ago called in the Marines -- or, rather, ex-Marines -- to help raise money, said he has not set a "target" sum to be raised by the foundation. His wife, however, in a separate interview, talked about raising a million dollars from "a lot of former Marines who have made it big."

"Paul has a group of men writing letters to former Marines who are chief executives of companies like Ford Motor Company, people like that who are looking for places to put their money," she said.

Among Kelley's ground rules, he said, are that the drive be kept "very low key," that no public solicitation be done and that the group not accept money from young active-duty Marines.

"It's not a high-pressure pitch at all. It's just that as we get moving, by word of mouth, we think that Marines who have been in the house, who know the history of the house, will probably come forth and give us a hand in keeping it in the style with which we should keep it," Kelley said.

Both Kelley and his wife said the donations would take care of expenditures not covered by the federal government. "There is money from the government," Barbara Kelley said, "when you need a new roof."

Taxpayers spent $31,530 on the Commandant's House in fiscal 1983 and $20,780 in 1984 on improvements including new wallpaper, paint and plaster and upgraded security and fire alarm systems. In fiscal 1985, the Marine Corps asked Congress for $49,216 to cover maintenance and operations, but funds have not yet been approved.

Of that sum, the $42,566 requested for operations would replace carpets, draperies, a refrigerator and three humidifiers, reupholster furniture, repair miscellaneous furniture and equipment, and pay for utilities. The remaining $6,650 covering maintenance would replace attic ventilation, repair the sitting room ceiling and replaster the outside wall of the Gold Room.

Department of Defense regulations prescribe how often carpeting and draperies can be changed but they are subject to interpretation at the military base level, according to a congressional source.

"There is a wide range of enforcement," said the source. "If the commanding officer wants something, he usually gets it."

The Kelleys estimated that the usual wear and tear on the 23-room, three-story brick structure is compounded by the fact that an estimated 4,000 people, most of them wives of Marines, pass through it on tours each year.

"I lay in bed one night and tried to figure out just how many feet pitter-pattered over carpets the government would not replace," Barbara Kelley said. When the carpet was taken up, she said, the padding was like "black sawdust."

Barbara Kelley, who has an interior decorator in mind, said the house could use some oriental rugs but that when she requested them from Clement G. Conger, who is curator to both the State Department and the White House, she was told those are available only to the White House and State Department.

"We wouldn't dare spend public money," Barbara Kelley said, "but they wouldn't give it to us anyway."

Her husband put it another way.

"I can't ask the taxpayer to pay for the kinds of things that one would want to do in this house," said Kelley. "It's a great opportunity for people who want to participate in a little part of the Marine Corps."

For their generosity, donors will receive a certificate and have their names inscribed "forever," Kelley said, in the Book of Benefactors kept at the house. From time to time, some will even be invited to parties.