LOGAN CIRCLE is a Victorian Christmas dinner.

The candy-stick streets and avenues sweetening the go-around, the rich-as-a-plum-pudding mixture of people, and above all, the gingerbread houses, surely baked instead of built and frosted with exuberant hard-sauce decoration, are served up in a holiday menu.

Look at the roofs: peaked, mansard, pavilion, turret and some that defy geometry. See how the stones are cut in belt courses, lintels, steps, tympani, carved capitals and arches, and a few peculiar shapes that are hard to explain. The stained glass and cut and ground glass patterns are diamonds, flowering branches, geometric symbols, hearts and fleur de lis.

The houses are not copy cats, but wildly original, borrowing from the gothic, the mediterranean, Tuscany, French renaissance, 19th-century London, and some places no one has ever been.

The cast iron railings twist, turn, flower, circle, star, twine and tangle in such contortions the eye cannot always follow what the hand wrought. The bricks are patterned with dozens of motifs.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Logan Circle is a time machine.

Any minute, President Grant or Rutherford B. Hayes could ride through in their carriages. Or bicyclists, intent on mastering the invention of the day -- wheels the same size, back and front -- could race around the circle.

Logan Circle belongs to a day when gold glittered in the mind's eye and sometimes in the hand, when oil gushed and every man could be a millionaire . . . When the War Between the States was over, and the World Wars not begun . . . When ceilings were tall and hats were handsome . . . When man was perfectible and ladies were already perfect. And meals had 30 courses and to be plump was pleasing.

The heaven on earth was here -- provided you didn't look in the alleys and see the po' folks, or in the hospitals and see the sick.

Like all Victorian feasts, Logan Circle, then and now, has its indigestible problems, causing heartburn for those who care about its glories.

Even in 1987, it's a Charles Dickens story of plenty and poverty, virtue and vice, justice and injustice. The homeowners, both longtime settlers and the new urban pioneers, keep constant vigilance against the prostitutes, the drug dealers and the vandals, while helping the derelict.

AS THE CIRCLE TURNS

Because the circle proper is an essential element in Pierre L'Enfant's great design, it's classified in the highest rating by the D.C. Landmark Commission: Category I, or "Landmarks of great importance which contribute significantly to the national cultural heritage or that of the District of Columbia and its environs, and which must be preserved."

The Logan Circle historic district of eight blocks radiates from the circle in uneven rays, like a whirligig. Even with a map, it's hard to figure exactly where the line runs.

The historic district is a Category II landmark because of its almost perfect collection of Victorian buildings

Because of these designations, many houses have been restored with the help of tax credits and low-interest loans from the city. In the mid-'70s, the Redevelopment Land Agency bought 14 houses in the area as a part of the Shaw Urban renewal program. In 1978 and 1979 the RLA sold the 14 cheaply to buyers who promised to restore them, make rental apartments for low-income tenants and to live in the house. (Logan Circle 18 went for only $32,000.)

Today the Logan Circle Community Association contains larger boundaries: Seventh Street NW on the east, 16th Street on the west, Massachusetts Avenue on the south and, on the north, Florida Avenue (Old Boundary Street, the original northern perimeter of the old City of Washington -- everything beyond was the District).

Logan Circle has been called some other things, not all of them suitable for a family newspaper, according to the scholarly and entertaining Logan Circle, prepared for the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency in 1973 by Turner Associates, P.C. and Nicholas Satterlee.

The area was a part of James Pearce's "Jamaica plantation" from 1687 until 1791, the time of Pierre L'Enfant's survey. L'Enfant designated the circle as a triangle, a core for a neighborhood, a focus for Vermont and Rhode Island avenues, 13th and P streets. The 1792 map by Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Bannaker, published after L'Enfant took umbrage and left because his plan for the city was being disregarded, began to round it into a circle.

Gen. Montgomery Meigs (who designed the Pension Building) painted watercolors in the area, when he knew it as Blodget's Wilderness tract. In 1862, a Pvt. Lanahan was hanged in the circle for murdering his sergeant. A decade or so later, what had come to be known as Hell's Bottom began to evolve into Iowa Circle. Why it was named for a state, not a man, is a fact lost in antiquity.

President Ulysses S. Grant appointed his friend Alexander Shepherd (called "Boss") as public works commissioner in the early 1870s, and things began to smarten up. Shepherd laid gas lines and paved 13th Street, probably with wood blocks. The oldest houses in the area are a row just south of O Street on the west side of 13th. The fact that Boss Shepherd owned a good bit of real estate in the area didn't hurt a bit in getting the roads and utilities in.)

The 1880s, after the War Between the States and the 1873 economic panic, was a prosperous period with geysers of oil, tracks of railroads and buckets of gold and silver coming to Washington to be changed into money and prosperous living, winning friends and influencing senators.

Iowa Circle and its radiating streets became an area of middle-class professional people -- black and white.

At the circle's center, wreathed in glory is John A. Logan himself, Yankee general, 1884 vice presidential candidate, three-term Illinois senator. The statue was dedicated on April 9, 1901. He is memorialized (cost $65,000) riding a high- stepping horse, atop scenes of glory from the battlefield to Congress. He is guarded by allegorical figures of war and peace, and icons of eagles and palm leaves, and a platoon of (live) pigeons. Franklin Simmons sculpted the hefty hunk in bronze, to sit solidly on the pink granite slab.

Don't take the art for history. Scholar James Goode, in The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D.C., points out that even though on the statue's east panel Vice President Chester A. Arthur is shown in the original Senate chamber, giving Logan his oath as senator in 1870, Arthur didn't become vice- president until 1881.

Logan earned his spot on the circle by proposing Memorial Day, organizing the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans association; and the Society of the Army of the Tennessee.

Logan died the day after Christmas, 1886, 101 years ago Saturday. The Evening Star the next day, among its eulogies, gave his address as being "at the head of 13th Street." Goode in Capital Losses records that he lived on the northeast corner of Clifton and 13th streets in a house he called Calumet Place, but originally called "Mount Pleasant." In the 1932 Columbia Historical Society Records, Fred A. Emery, president of the D.C. Society of Natives, wrote that the Logans moved there from "their big red brick house on Iowa Circle West at P Street." Which it was, no one today seems to remember.

Not until March 31, 1931 (according to the Columbia Historical Society 1931 records) did Congress change the name of the Circle to honor the man, not the state.

The L'Enfant plan had allowed for much wider streets than Boss Shepherd thought the city could afford to pave. So in April 6, 1870, an act authorized one-half of the width to be reserved for parking, and the owner of the adjacent house was permitted to fence or enclose this 20-odd-foot of land front. The wide streets also permitted large trees to be planted. On Jan. 16, 1871, another act permitted bays, towers and porches four feet beyond property lines. Steps could stick out farther.

Shepherd was Washington's first major row-house developer. Some say he built as many as a thousand houses. Until he began to make Washington habitable, most senators and representatives stayed in Washington in rented rooms and only when Congress was in session. But after 1870, they not only brought their wives but often didn't leave after their terms were over. And the new millionaires came to town to lobby for legislation to help them keep their wealth.

Dupont Circle was the home of the silver, gold and oil millionaires, not Iowa Circle. But the rich middle class built around the streets that surrounded 13th. And between the World Wars, Logan Circle was the circle to go around for black professionals, intellectuals and society.

THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREETS

On a warm and glorious day, with the sun illuminating the houses and the lawns like a million strings of clear Christmas tree lights, we went to Logan Circle with my notebook and Richard's cameras to begin the season to be jolly.

We parked just off the circle on Vermont Avenue and walked first to the circle of green and granite, dodging cars bent on mayhem. A couple on a bench with a radio seemed as though they'd do an Astaire/Rogers number any minute. A shabbily dressed man looked with unrequited hope into the trash container. A father pushed his child in a carriage on a trip around the world of the circle.

Down Vermont Avenue, a man sat on the steps taking the sun while he read his newspaper. A truck unloaded high Victorian furniture into a recently remodeled building. At Bethune Museum, large musical instruments came out of a van hardly big enough to hold them and went into the house for a concert.

For years we've driven through Logan Circle, watching its beauties crumble: (sometimes literally, like the time when No. 4, one of the most beautiful of the houses, lost a wall, as though it were a set in the movie "San Francisco"). And we've cheered (as we drive through at 25 miles per hour, slower on the turn) when boarded windows and doors are opened up by restorers.

Every time we went through, I've had this mad desire to jump out, gape at the glorious buildings, read on a park bench and be a spoke in the circle. On this day, we did just those things.

We limited our walk roughly to the Circle; Vermont Avenue between Mt. Olivet Church and the circle; and Rhode Island Avenue between 14th Street and the circle.

AROUND THE CIRCLE

Logan Circle's own legend, ballet mistress Therrell C. Smith, has lived on Logan Circle longer than anyone now around. She's still whirling around, decorating her windows at No. 14, not just with wreaths for Christmas, but hearts for February, shamrocks for March, easter eggs for April and geraniums in every window the year around.

"I moved here with my father, Dr. Thomas C. Smith, and my mother, Birdie, and my four sisters in 1931. He had his physician's office here until he died in 1953," she said.

Almost anyone else wouldn't have been able to talk: The day before she'd given her traditional Christmas party for 100 guests.

"My friends won't let me stop," she said.

They enjoy going all over the place, admiring her 200 plants; the furniture chosen by her mother, who had a reputation for her taste; the photographs of the five Smith weddings in the house. And they eat up her famous cookies.

Therrell Smith has photographs of the sisters, dolled up fit to kill, pushing the littlest one around in a cane carriage in the park, or decorously posing for one another's cameras.

"In the winter, we'd sled down the 13th Street hill," she said.

Her 15-room house, with drawing room, library, kitchen on the piano nobile, or main floor, is barely big enough for her constant company. Ten nieces and nephews are in and out of her house all the time, fussing over who gets the bed in the penthouse, as they call the paneled top floor, and other favorites. A nephew is just back from Harvard to live with her. The house is the Smith family seat; everybody comes here for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"On Christmas Eve, 17 or so of my ballet students come for a party and a spend-the-night," Smith said. "We have a good time."

Smith, with only a slight tilt of her nose at Victorian design, likes to point out that her house is Beaux Arts in style, built in 1903, after the dear queen was no more.

"Logan Circle isn't as nice as it was back then, when the sidewalks were wider, and parking cut down on the traffic," she said. "And the whole circle was a rose garden."

Two years after they moved there, the roadway was widened by 10 feet, reducing the 15-foot-wide sidewalk to five feet wide.

Unfortunately, some misguided transportation planner in 1950 cut the circle's park into three pieces of what some called ribbons, and others, more graphically called "a lemon bracketted by boomerangs." Not until November 1980 was the Thirteenth Street inner roadway shortcut closed, and the circle reunited into more than an acre, planted with trees and flowers.

The glory of the circle, the Second Empire-style double house Logan Circle No. 1 and No. 2, is in genteel decay, like a Washington grand dame who has known brighter and richer days. But as they say of these old but elegant ladies, its good bones still give it a magnificence, despite its peeling paint skin and sagging features.

The air of reduced circumstances gives the house at No. 1 and No. 2 a romantic air, as though all sorts of dusty treasures of moldings and mysteries lie within. I could hardly leave it to look at the rest of the circle, for I've longed for Logan No. 1 and No.2 with a persistent passion.

The double house was built on the southwest lot of the circle about 1880. The National Register of Historic Places' nomination lists William I. Hildrup, president of the Harrisburg Car Co., as the original owner of No. 1. Charles D. Colman, a lawyer, and Norman K. Colman, Agriculture commissioner were first residents of No. 2. The Venezuelan Legation used it from 1895 until 1899. Later a sanitarium occupied the building.

Many other Logan Circle area houses have mansard roofs. Francois Mansart , a French architect (1598-1666), is credited with the Mansard roof, sort of a crown for a house. The roof shape was revived in Paris during Napoleon III's Second Empire when it was exhibited at the Paris International Exposition in 1855. It soon came to the United States, persisting until 1880.

Some of the Circle houses are famous for their architecture, others for their inhabitants. Logan Circle No. 12 is famous for its 600-pound red bathtub on the third floor and for its diminutive but determined owner, Barbara Rothenberg, a real estate agent. She came to the Circle in 1972 and now boasts that she sold every house on the 1987 house tour -- at least once.

In true Victorian taste, her house is full of collections: Hats (all outrageous, all worn by Rothenberg at one time or other) hang on the hall rack on the first floor. Stodgy oak furnishings suitable to be laden with beef stew and multiple desserts, mix in with an organ, a piano, posters and Victorian doodads. The house has seven fireplaces, tall windows and other necessities of 1883 when the house was built by Thomas Franklin Schneider, the architect of the Cairo Hotel, 1615 Q St. NW, and the builder of many other handsome houses.

My husband's favorite house is a few doors down at Logan No.4. This is the house where once the whole side wall collapsed. But now its double New Orleans galleries on the P Street side and its arched renaissance porches and a tower on the circle delight the non-conforming eye.

No. 6, famous for its green stone, which crumbled and had to be replaced by Jim Smith, was built in 1878. It was designed by Henry R. Searle for Cmdr. Allen V. Reed, captain of the USS Kansas battleship. His daughters lived there until the 1930s, when the house fell on hard times and became 14 apartments. The current owners bought it in 1985.

No. 9, built in 1887 and modestly Romanesque, contains three apartments. Its tower is topped with a fine balcony.

No. 7, built only the year before No.9, is almost a study in the builder's catalogue of the late 19th century. Notice its molded brick in the Italianate style. The house now holds many apartments.

Until his death in 1960, No. 11 was Bishop Charles M. (Sweet Daddy) Grace's "Heaven," complete with his white-robed followers whom he called angels. His United House of Prayer for All People owns and uses the house, still painted the colors that matched his Fleetwood Cadillac: blue and white against the red brick. Once a year the faithful come from all over to march around the Circle and down 13th Street.

Logan Circle No.3 is also 1301 Rhode Island Avenue, sitting on a flatiron lot. Some call its rounded tower a bull-nose. The house, which needs only a moat and Errol Flynn to be a castle, was designed by Glenn Brown, a well-known late 19th-century architect who also designed Dumbarton (Buffalo) Bridge. The Richardson Romanesque mansion was built in 1886. It now contains four apartments.

The magnificent and beautifully restored house at 1500 13th Street has an impressive orangery on the circle and is called No. 15. The Teamsters once owned the house and put down asphalt tile with Teamster emblems on it, according to Rothenburg.

LUNCH BREAK

This is as good a place as any to stop for lunch. When we feel affluent and want to be pampered with good service and light but delicious food, we go over to the Vista Hotel on M Street between Vermont and 15th streets for lunch in the American Harvest. Three courses $13, four courses, $15. When we want to eat hearty and cheap, we go over to 15th Street, between M and L, to the Hunan Cafe Chinese Carryout. Lo-Mein, $3.25. Water, 10 cents.

We still had more to see, so we headed back to Vermont and Rhode Island avenues, leaving Corcoran, O, P, Q and 13th to another day, though they are well worth the attention.

VERMONT AVENUE

Logan Circle isn't just the circle. Vermont Avenue from Mount Olivet Lutheran Church at 1308 Vermont to the Circle on the west side is worth the walk by itself.

The church itself, originally built as the Vermont Avenue Christian Church between 1882 and 1884, was dedicated to the assassinated President James A. Garfield, a member at an earlier location. Mt. Olivet bought the church in 1953 for $100,000. The building, in the "Gothick" taste, was designed by R. G. Russel of Hartford, Conn. Its spire, stretching to God, rises 137 feet.

The houses from 1314 to 1344 Vermont Avenue NW date from 1875 to 1890. Their three stories and basements are built of brick, pressed brick and stone. Their projecting bays, dormered attics and string courses give variety to the street. The west side is the best.

The Logan Circle book says that gas service was installed at 1316 Vermont in 1872, and that 1314, 1316 and 1318 were all built by the same person, about the same time, all in the Second Empire style.

From 1943 until 1953, the handsome house at 1318 Vermont Avenue was the home of Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women Inc., a college president, a long-time educator and director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, as well as an advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The house is now the Bethune Museum and Archives, though the statue of Bethune is at Lincoln Park.

Perhaps the most exuberant house on the street is 1322, Confederate Memorial Hall, perhaps better called the "Confederate Government in Exile." The 22 rooms spread over four stories are filled with memorabilia of the "Last of the Gallant Wars." The house was built in 1872 by the Maddox family, who took in Confederate veterans after the War of the Northern Aggression, as they probably called it.

The house at 1324 was built in 1883 and 1884 by Claudius Jewell. But in the 1940s, it lost its family and was divided into a rooming house by slicing rooms down the middle, leaving many without windows. In 1974 it was remodeled by Bob and Connie Maffin into four units.

The house at 1337 Vermont Avenue has changed hands only twice. Milton Hoover built it. Lawrence Kinser turned it into a rooming house in 1960. And Donald and Spiro Kolas restored it in 1971, scraping off the paint to find, among other things, gray marble mantels.

The splendid 1344 Vermont Avenue was built in 1879 and remodeled by Albert Randolph and Meredith Olson in 1979. They restored the bay, recast iron handrails and built exterior front doors based on the one next door at 1342. The house is not only notable for its charming bay but for its Mansard roof windows with highly ornamented frames.

Across the circle and up the street, we followed Vermont Avenue to admire 1502, built in 1879. Its carriage entry through a small porch leads to a three-section window that pushes up to make a doorway.

RHODE ISLAND AVENUE

The house at 1307 Rhode Island Avenue was built in 1886 for the Lang family. It has a handsome grill and a small garden.

Next door, at 1309, is the 1896 house designed by J. W. Mavin for F. B. Pyle. Ron Morgan took five years to renovate the house.

At 1310, Tom Turchan had to tear out most of the inside because the house had been abandoned. But he saved the skylight for a central atrium.

At 1318, the house was designed by Glenn Brown (who also designed the house at the Circle and Rhode Island) in 1887 for Samuel Bacon, president of a fire insurance company. Darrel Rippeteau was the restoration architect.

LOGAN LEGEND

Logan Circle's area is Washington's own Christmas village, a tribute to pioneering home owners with faith, bottomless pocketbooks and strong backs; skilled craftspeople who prove they can still do it the way they used to; and a few strong souls who moved there long ago, and hold on while Logan Circle rises again.