Austere and dignified, strong if staid, the new Hecht's Metro Center department store stands amid the ruins of G Street, promising better days to come.

The building's simple, classic design -- though not in any way imitative -- would not have seemed out of place centuries ago. Its architecture speaks quietly to the street, commanding attention by its presence without unseemly shouts.

It is one of the few nonmall department stores built in this country since World War II. Solid and substantial, it bestows a feeling of security on passers-by. At night, a ring of round lights eight feet off the ground illuminates the way for sidewalk strollers.

Bands of Salisbury pink granite -- horizontal and vertical, rough and polished -- trim and soften the G Street facade, turn the corners on both 12th and 13th streets, and frame the show windows. You could be excused for taking the whole building for granite, but much is of precast, block-scored Canadian concrete panels, according to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Washington associate partner James L. Bodnar.

The trim is just enough, and not too much. The building has no need for towers, cupolas or other Post-Modern protrusions. Lipstick-red window awnings of a graceful triangular shape give just enough frivolity to the restrained architecture. Newly planted trees, which should flourish on the south exposure, will eventually shade the summer street.

On the 11th- and 12th-street corners, the building opens itself to the street with columned and covered entryways, offering a portico for shoppers arriving by car. Two Metro entrances, one at each end, are under the store.

Inside, by contrast, the new Hecht's seems rather compacted and constricted. The first-floor ceilings are about 10 feet high, rising to 14 feet at the glass-sided escalator tower. Older department stores like Hecht's Seventh Street landmark, with their lofty, ornately columned ceilings, made shopping seem as exciting as going to the Opera House in Vienna. This store seems more business than theater.

Hecht's five floors (four above street level and one below) include 275,000 square feet of shopping space and a small restaurant. Hambrecht Terrell International of New York designed the interior. Marble wallways -- halls without walls -- run along the curving, carpeted shopping bays, with some effort given to providing a separate identity to each grouping. The colors used (mulberry, mauve blush and something Lester Melnicove, Hecht's senior vice president for store planning and construction, calls "peachy keen") are rich without being jarring. Glass walls help group furniture without stopping the eye.

But the building is more than just another place to spend your money. It is a sign that downtown Washington is overcoming years of decay and neglect, the controversy between the city and the developers over the price of land, and the sneers and doubts of those who never believed a face lift could make the town young again.

Sometime between 1989 and 1992, according to developer Oliver T. Carr, the $40 million Hecht's is expected to be the centerpiece of a $260 million three-parcel development, unified by materials and architecture. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Washington office, headed by David Childs, has designed all three for the Oliver T. Carr Co. and Hagans Development Co. Within two and a half blocks -- from 11th Street, between H and G streets, to the middle of the 1300 block of G Street -- will be three office buildings, several stories of retail space and a 450-room convention hotel. Work on the hotel begins this spring. The last phase will be a six-story office building to be superimposed on Hecht's.

And the rest of the neighborhood is changing as well.

The city government is still negotiating with other department store chains, principally Bloomingdale's and Lord & Taylor, in the hope of bringing in another major development across G Street from Hecht's.

Garfinckel's has already redecorated its handsome landmark store, as has Woodward & Lothrop. National Place and the Old Post Office are flourishing. Metropolitan Plaza and the Willard Hotel will open soon. The joint public-private Downtown Partnership, encouraged by the new construction, is improving sidewalks and crosswalks, transportation, security and promotion.

None of this rebirth will solve all the sins of the city, nor make the farecards work, nor bring on the millennium. But even so, when the cranes and the street barriers depart, Washington -- like New York, London and Paris -- will have a shopping core offering a sophistication, diversity and elegance that should give "going downtown" its happy meaning back.