ANN HAWKINS is in the atrium of the National Gallery of Art's East Building, behind the kind of velvet ropes that keep theater patrons in line. A group of tourists has ambled over to watch her at work, a curious mixture of interest and dread on their faces. It's as if they're watching a tightrope walker or a flying trapeze artist, and when someone takes a flash picture of Hawkins, it sends an uneasy ripple through the small crowd. What she's doing is beautiful, everyone's thinking, but one false move and splat!

Pulled up close to a vertical expanse of Tennessee pink marble, a tiny metal hammer in one hand and a chisel in the other, the 50-year-old Hawkins is immortalizing a few philanthropists, carving their names into the gallery's wall. They are members, the large letters at the top of the inscription announce, of the gallery's Patrons' Permanent Fund, and though the permanence probably relates to their support of this stellar institution, it could just as well apply to the work Hawkins, stone carver, is doing: permanent, lasting, forever.

"The most common question I get," Hawkins says later with a hint of exasperation, "is 'What do you do if you make a mistake?' " EDIFICE TREKS

Washington probably produces more words than any other city in the world. Politicians orate, pundits speculate and commentators narrate. But Washington's words have a peculiarly fleeting quality. They're copied into notebooks, transferred to computer screens, then set into type and bound into reports that are filed on shelves and forgotten. Words are spat out in sound bites on the evening news, then released into the ether, lost forever. In the wordy war of politics, a paper trail is something best avoided.

But there is a stone trail in Washington, too: the words someone felt were important enough not just to commit to parchment, paper or videotape but to sandstone, marble or granite. On the buildings of Washington are noble sentiments and self-serving ones, moving odes and contemplative ones.

A reading tour of Washington's inscriptions amounts to an aerobic classical education. The inscriptions, lofty in both position and tone, are taken from the Bible, from the Greeks and Romans, from poets and playwrights, from presidents and statesmen. When viewing Washington's inscriptions, soaking up what is in most cases a perfect union of poesy and architecture, it's easy to see why "edifice" and "edify" spring from the same root.

Lesson one starts at that great Beaux-Arts bathhouse on Capitol Hill, Union Station. Daniel Burnham's 1908 station is encrusted with carvings that do everything from romantically outline the development of the railroads to offer lessons in both humility and hospitality.

On the western end of the shining white Vermont granite structure, above the entrance to the Metro, this is written (in all capital letters, as most inscriptions are):

He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him. So it is in travelling. A man must carry knowledge with him if he would bring home knowledge.

A bit heavy to digest when dashing for the Metroliner on a rainy Monday morning, but worth mulling over once a seat is found and you chug towards New York, briefcase at your feet, notes spread out on your lap, the words of the boss echoing in your brain: "Sew up the Snebco account, Johnson, and there could be a vice presidency in it for you."

At the other end of the station is the perfect sentiment for the returning hero:

Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest. Virtue alone is sweet society. It keeps the key to all heroic hearts and opens you a welcome in them all.

These are just two of the half-dozen inscriptions on Union Station. Above allegorical statues by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that stand over the main entrance are inscriptions celebrating the forces that created the railroads, including this set singing the praises of fire and electricity:

Fire: greatest of discoveries, enabling man to live in various climates, use many foods, and compel the forces of nature to do his work. Electricity: carrier of light and power, devourer of time and space, bearer of human speech over land and sea, greatest servant of man, itself unknown. Thou hast put all things under his feet.

So inspirational were these and the other Union Station inscriptions thought to be 80 years ago that the Washington Terminal Company, operators of the station, distributed a free pamphlet imprinted with them. They probably saved more than a few sore necks.

Union Station's inscriptions were selected by Charles William Eliot, who at the time was president of Harvard University. According to John L. Andriot's "Guide to the Inscriptions of the Nation's Capital," Eliot borrowed from such sources as the Bible, Shakespeare, Alexander Pope and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Eliot also penned his own epigrams, a seemingly modest skill until you start to wonder what you'd come up with when confronted with a big blank wall that will bear your words forever.

Eliot also wrote the two inscriptions on the City Post Office right next to the station. The inscriptions, facing Massachusetts Avenue, sing the praises of the humble letter carrier, describing him as a:

Carrier of news and knowledge, instrument of trade and industry, promoter of mutual acquaintance of peace and of goodwill among men and nations . . . and a . . .

Messenger of sympathy and love, servant of parted friends, consoler of the lonely, bond of scattered family, enlarger of the common life.

It's said that President Woodrow Wilson edited these inscriptions, unaware that Eliot had written them. Like all good editors, Wilson improved them.

Three long blocks away (right behind the Supreme Court and Equal justice under law) is the Folger Shakespeare Library, where the student of inscriptions can pause and contemplate Stratford-on-Avon's favorite son. On the building's E Street side, above bas-relief panels depicting scenes from Shakespeare's plays, are three commentaries on the playwright, including this from Ben Jonson:

Thou art a moniment without a tombe and art alive still while thy booke doth live and we have wits to read and praise to give.

Folger architect Paul Cret obviously decided not to bury Shakespeare, but praise him.ROCKS AND HARD PLACES

Ann Hawkins: "There are two comments I get from people who watch me carve and they make perfect symmetry. Half the people say 'Oh, that looks so tedious. You must have a lot of patience.' But I also get 'That looks like fun.' And they wish they could do it."

Hawkins studied four years before she could do it well enough to take her first paying commission. She's been carving professionally for eight years now, long enough to decide that stones are "living, breathing things." And each one is different. Sandstone is soft. Some slates can be brittle and hard, with knots in them almost like wood. White Vermont marble feels "sugary" and crumbles a bit at the first stroke. Tennessee pink marble is "chunky and firm."

There are a lot of things a stone carver has to take into account before striking the first blow, Hawkins says. "The nature of the stone, the light the inscription will receive, the weathering of the stone, how large the letters will be, what distance they'll be viewed from."

The most important part of carving, she says, is the layout of the inscription. The letters must be spaced correctly, not bunched too tightly together as if they were typeset, but spread comfortably and handsomely. The inscription must look as if it is of the stone, not on the stone.

Hawkins draws the letters on paper that -- "after being measured from every direction" -- is taped to the stone over sheets of typewriter carbon paper. She then outlines the inscription, transferring it to the stone. With a tungsten carbide-tipped chisel she starts hammering, sometimes working her way around the edges of the letter, sometimes starting in the center and working out. She turns and shifts the blade, roughing the letter in at first, then finishing it, aiming for the perfect V-shaped indentation that is the mark of a hand-carved inscription. (Sand-blasted inscriptions, carved by machine, have a rounded center.) As in everything from squash to Frisbee, it's all in the wrist.

If the inscription is outside, the sun will provide the contrast necessary for the letters to be read. As the rays rake across the inscription, the shadows will lengthen, popping out the words. If the inscription is inside, Hawkins paints the inside of the letters with a lacquer that's mixed with pigment, deepening the color of the stone. TRIANGULAR LOGIC

If a walk around Washington's inscriptions is a classical education, a perambulation of Federal Triangle is the civics lesson. The limestone cliffs of the Triangle, stretching from their base at 15th Street down Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues, are inscribed with mottoes that immediately conjure up a somehow nobler time.

The walls fairly sing with inscriptions, enjoining passersby to be eternally vigilant (it's the price of liberty says the National Archives), to Study the past (an understandable sentiment, appearing as it also does on the Archives), and to heed Thomas Jefferson and Cultivate peace and commerce with all (on the Commerce Building and an example of one of the tenets of good epigram selection: Try to work the name of the building into at least one inscription).

The Federal Triangle inscriptions also provide justifications for the buildings that they decorate and the government departments they praise. The inscription on the Internal Revenue Service headquarters on Constitution Avenue is not Dante's Abandon all hope ye who enter here, but Oliver Wendell Holmes's Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society. Just in case you were wondering.

On the Justice Department we have:

Justice is the great interest of man on earth. Wherever her temple stands there is a foundation for social security, general happiness and the improvement and progress of our race.

This epigram rankled Edward Conn, a local poet who in 1935 led a Washington Post reporter around the building, commenting on the inscriptions' appropriateness or lack thereof. Conn believed proclaiming justice the "great interest of man on earth" was "a slight exaggeration of the place of justice in the life of man."

Conn went on to skewer other selections, including National laws administered by public officers. "Now there," he said, "is something really profound. Who else but public officers would administer our laws. The thing's a waste of space."

Conn thought an even more unfortunate choice was Framed through mutual confidence. Said The Post: "Mr. Conn believes 'framed,' with the implications some police practices have given it, is 'a bad word to inscribe on a building dedicated to justice.' He says he shudders every time he reads it."

While Justice certainly has its share of letters (including this bit of Latin: Lege atque ordine omnia fiunt -- "By law and order all is accomplished"), the award for the most verbose building must go to Commerce. Stretched out along 14th Street, eight stories up and spread out over hundreds of feet, is this edifying ode:

The inspiration that guided our forefathers led them to secure above all things the unity of our country. We rest upon government by consent of the governed and the political order of the United States is the expression of a patriotic ideal which welds together all the elements of our national energy promoting the organization that fosters individual initiative. Within this edifice are established agencies that have been created to buttress the life of the people, to clarify their problems and coordinate their resources, seeking to lighten burdens without lessening the responsibility of the citizen. In serving one and all they are dedicated to the purpose of the founders and to the highest hopes of the future with their local administration given to the integrity and welfare of the nation.

It's a mouthful. But it's also redolent of a time that seems almost hopelessly naive now, a time when we could use words like "national energy" and "purpose of the founders" without smirking. This passage and two other long ones were created especially for the building, composed, it is believed, by Royal Cortissoz, for 50 years the influential art critic of the New York Tribune (and author of this much pithier epigram from the Lincoln Memorial: In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever).

The Commerce Department inscriptions had their own critics, among them one Thomas Woodward who in 1934, when the giant office building was in its final stages of construction, wrote a letter to a friend at the Department of the Interior:

"Dear Charley, in the name of your illustrious progenitor -- not the least of whose gifts was the art of epigraphy -- do what you can to stop the inscriptions which are being smeared over the new Government buildings. I shiver for the English of our descendants if they are daily exposed to some of these atrocious inscriptions. Justification for my intemperance in language will be found at one glance of the inscriptions being placed upon the Department of Commerce Building."

Harrumph. It's quite clear Mr. Woodward was not happy with the work of Mr. Cortissoz. What's interesting is to whom he addressed his complaint. The "Charley" in the letter is Charles W. Eliot II, son of the Harvard president who composed the Union Station and City Post Office epigrams. The younger Eliot forwarded the letter of complaint to Charles Moore, chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, the body responsible -- then as now -- for reviewing the design of government building projects. Moore allowed as how his commission hadn't been consulted on the inscriptions. Eliot followed up with a salvo of his own:

"I am very grateful to you for giving this matter your attention, but still I am regretful that the inscriptions now being carved were not previously checked by your Commission and improved as to form. They seem to be thoroughly bromidic and uninteresting -- a lost opportunity."

Eliot had a point. The Commerce Department inscriptions seem lecturing rather than inspirational, long and sour rather than short and sweet. Moore must have forgotten that he once wrote: "Inscriptions are an art in themselves. They should be monumental and express in few words a great sentiment."

Still, there can be poetry in even the longest of inscriptions. Consider this moving sentiment, carved on the hemicycle of the Post Office Department building:

The Post Office Department, in its ceaseless labors, pervades every channel of commerce and every theatre of human enterprise, and while visiting as it does kindly, every fireside, mingles with the throbbings of almost every heart in the land. In the amplitude of its beneficence, it ministers to all climes, and creeds, and pursuits, with the same eager readiness and with equal fullness of fidelity. It is the delicate ear trump through which alike nations and families and isolated individuals whisper their joys and their sorrows, their convictions and their sympathies to all who listen for their coming.

What is it about the Post Office that inspires the most poignant inscriptions? And whom do we talk to about getting the phrase "ear trump" back into common usage?

Any classical education should include the Greeks, of course, and Washington is lucky enough to offer a textbook not too far from the Triangle. The National Academy of Sciences on Constitution Avenue has along its parapet an inscription not only from a famous Greek philospher -- Aristotle, from his "Metaphysics" -- but written in that ancient tongue as well. Translated, it reads:

The search for Truth is in one way hard and in another easy. For it is evident that no one can master it fully nor miss it wholly. But each adds a little to our knowledge of Nature, and from all the facts assembled there arises a certain grandeur.OOPS . . .

Well, what do you do if you're a stone carver and you make a mistake? After all, the expression "carved in stone" isn't much good if fixing a typo in a chunk of marble is as easy as dabbing on some Liquid Paper or depressing the backspace key.

Ann Hawkins: "If I got a chip there are epoxy resins I could apply . . . . It's very rare to make a mistake, unless you do something stupid."

On projects bigger than the 1 3/8-inch letters Hawkins is carving in the National Gallery, boo-boos can be lopped out entirely, the offending block of stone cut out and replaced with a "dutchman," a fresh piece that's inserted like a patch and -- hopefully -- carved correctly.

There's no dutchman in what is perhaps the most obvious mistake in a Washington inscription. Inscribed in three sections on the north wall of the Lincoln Memorial is Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural address. Twenty lines down in the first block of words is a phrase that concludes: "WITH HIGH HOPES FOR THE EUTURE." The poor stone carver added an extra stroke to the F, transforming it into an E. Because the inscription is inside -- away from the rays of the sun and the shadows they provide -- it would be virtually unreadable if the insides of the letters weren't painted black. And so, the bottom stroke of the E was left unpainted, making the best of a bad situation.BACK TO THE STONE AGE

Most newer buildings aren't graced with inscriptions. Even something as modest as having a building's name or address carved is a cause for celebration among area stone carvers. While a building named after a famous American might once have warranted an inscribed quotation from that person, today we have the James Forrestal Federal Building and the William McChesney Martin Jr. Federal Reserve Board Building with nary a peep from either gentleman.

Two projects that would seem to cry out for inscriptions of the inspirational kind are the judicial office building going up near Union Station and the international trade and cultural center planned for Federal Triangle. But, alas, there are no plans as yet for inscriptions on either building. The architects and developers haven't ruled it out, they're quick to say, it's just that the client -- the federal government -- hasn't really asked for anything.

And it probably won't. After all, the '90s aren't like the '30s, the period of Washington's big inscription boom. This is supposed to be a time of little, quiet government, not big, loud government. Why should government buildings assault the eyes of pedestrians and motorists with jingoistic slogans and propagandist mottoes? Shouldn't the feds just get out of our hair?

Perhaps, but somehow when we were willing to not only stand behind our words but carve them immutably into the living stone, it suggested we believed in them a little more, thought them worth remembering, no matter how self-evident or self-aggrandizing they seemed.

We don't seem to do much of that anymore. Maybe it's time to read the writing on the walls.