For years, only die-hard renovators and those committed to historic preservation haunted the few local shops that specialized in architectural salvage. There was a small group of dealers who could find a particular glass doorknob, a period sink or even a historically correct hinge.

But that's changing. And so is the whole notion of architectural salvage.

In strict terms, architectural salvage represents just about anything rescued from an old building -- tiles, sinks, lighting fixtures, even flooring. But more and more it's come to mean something saved not just for its utilitarian value, but for its decorative worth as well.

"Americans have finally realized that there is some history in architectural salvage, and that these are direct pieces of that history," says Margaret Rubino, whose trend-setting Rooms & Gardens shop in upper Georgetown is filled with some of the best examples of high-style salvage, much of it from Europe. "These things are becoming established forms of antiques, rather than a poor cousin. Now, they're welcomed into everybody's living rooms."

Today, interior designers and architects have joined those die-hard rehabbers poking through the stock at salvage shops, particularly those specializing in decorative building arts. "Once people see how well these things incorporate themselves into a design, almost everybody loves it," says Gerald Smith, a local interior designer who uses pieces of salvage in many of his contemporary interiors.

The popularity of architectural antiques has become so pervasive it's hard to find a local antiques shop without at least one example of salvage. Rooms & Gardens and Julie Waters in Georgetown and Marston Luce and Cherishables near Dupont Circle all feature salvage, espe- cially those all-the-rage garden orna- ments. Aileen Minor, a dealer in Princess Anne, Md., has a fine selection of age-encrusted garden furniture and accessories, as does the Well-Furnished Garden, Marjory Segal's by-appointment-only business in Bethesda. Many of the area antiques shows also feature architectural antiques, especially the spectacular two-year-old Decades of Design show, held each April in Baltimore. Even auctions have been known to sell a decorative window or two -- along with garden urns, benches and other decorative outdoor details.

What follows is a list of some of the more established salvage shops in the area, a couple of newcomers and some innovative county programs to encourage recycling.

Because, recycling, in truth, is what architectural salvage is all about. RISKY BUSINESS

Dealing in architectural salvage can sometimes generate strong reactions. Just ask Penny Brewster, who, with husband Wesley Long owns Architectural Artifacts on Capitol Hill.

Five years ago, Brewster and Long were hired to sell off parts of a house near Embassy Row that, as she understood it, was slated for demolition. The auction went smoothly, and by the afternoon buyers were busy disassembling the house and carting away their purchases -- doors, marble floors, wood floors, an entire kitchen, even switch plates.

Then a group of neighbors showed up. They started asking questions. Soon it became obvious that the neighborhood had known nothing about the new owner's demolition plans. And so began the controversial tale of the Appleby mansion, which quickly became known as the House That Herbert Haft Tore Down (to be replaced by a massive $4 million mini-palace). "It was a devastating blow to the neighbors," says Brewster.

Unfortunately, Brewster explains, because of that kind of neighborhood hostility, "people who want to demolish a building now do it in the dead of night, without anyone having access to it. But at least everything but the outside walls was saved."

Some of the elements, in fact, are still available. Three poplar and heart-of-pine French doors from the Appleby mansion have been consigned to Brewster and Long's eclectic shop across from Eastern Market, which sells both 19th- and 20th-century architectural antiques and an- tique furniture. There is the usual assortment of mantels, doors, shutters, garden urns, stained glass, tiles and fireplace surrounds -- all competitively priced. But some of the more exotic stock is too large to keep in the shop. Take the complete 1915 marble bank lobby, or the 1911 walnut revolving door from the Hecht Co. -- the prices of which are negotiable. Brewster and Long also carry some pieces not automatically thought of as architectural salvage: large pier mirrors, pub tables, sets of huge walnut valances.

"Sometimes, the furniture came along with the entire building," says Brewster, who with her husband, once actively conducted whole-house auctions. "We would have demolition sales, put an ad in the paper that said 'building coming down' and 100 or 200 people would show up. Very little was lost." But because of the kind of neighborhood resistance that greeted the demolition of the Appleby mansion, these kinds of sales are very rare these days. "It's really a shame," says Brewster. "Unfortunately, it hasn't stopped development. It's just stopped salvage."

With the decline of demolition sales, Brewster and Long, like many other architectural dealers in the area, now rely more heavily on pickers and private sellers to supply them with stock. Their clientele has also changed with the times. No longer are customers serious renovators looking for an obscure hinge or plumbing fixture. A more typical customer comes looking for decorative elements -- and often brings his architect or decorator along. But there is still resistance among some of the building trade when it comes to installing period pieces in new -- and old -- homes.

"Finding skilled people to put material in is difficult. And doing anything once {as opposed to installing stock pieces that come with instructions} is terribly costly," says Brewster, recalling a customer who fell in love with a door but changed her mind when she found out her contractor would charge $700 to frame and install it. So Brewster and Long, like many of the architectural dealers in the area, keep a list of skilled plumbers, carpenters, refinishers and other craftsmen accustomed to working with old materials. "If a contractor is resistant, we have a warehouse, tools and the people who can do the work," she says. Architectural Artifacts, 216 Seventh St. SE. (202) 546-2811. Open: Thursday through Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. BUY A MANTEL, SAVE A TREE'

"We recycle as much as we can in our house, and I try to take that attitude to the business," says Paul Davis, manager of Architectural Antiques Ltd. in Aldie, Va. " 'Buy a mantel, save a tree' may be pushing things a bit, but not too far. It does have an impact."

Whether Davis is motivated as much by ideals as by commerce pure and simple is arguable. But even a casual stroll through the turn-of-the-century Victorian house that's home to his enterprise makes it plain that there's a customer -- and a price -- for everything. There's the Mantel Room and the Sink Room and the Folk Room and the Big Room -- a bare-bones two-story addition that Davis calls the Cold Room in winter. There are rooms with no names but plenty of items. And some of the prices make you wish your grandmother had saved more than just the good silver.

"I have pieces from less than $20 up to $10,000," says Davis, who recently changed the name of his store from the Great American Salvage Co. (and broke off his formal relationship with that Manhattan-based franchise of architectural shops). "I have sinks from $350 to $7,000, but for $7,000, it's a knockout."

The price of an object depends on a number of factors, says Davis -- its history, age, condition, aesthetic value, scarcity and what the market will bear. "People have difficulty in this business knowing what they should pay for something," he admits. "We all know what a certain type of car sells for, but doors and sinks? . . . But I think an 18th-century door has a certain craftsmanship, an aesthetic that gives it its own merit. Using these materials is an education process."

Davis, like other area dealers, urges customers to think broadly and make the effort needed to incorporate details into their homes or renovation projects. A stained-glass window needn't be installed as a window to be appreciated -- it can stand on its own hung on a wall, or even propped against a wall. Even large objects, from plumbing fixtures to columns to transoms, can be incorporated. "Bring plans, I'll help work out the size," says Davis. "I'm happy to pass along all the knowledge I have."

Architectural Antiques Ltd., U.S. 50, P.O. Box 145, Aldie, Va. (703) 327-6159. Open: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday by appointment. Closed Sunday. MONTGOMERY MISSION

Every Saturday, from noon until 4 p.m., Mike Seebold oversees Old House Parts, a collection of architectural artifacts sold in a motley collection of Quonset huts and makeshift buildings near the Rockville Metro stop.

One hot Saturday, as he is showing a visitor around the shop, an elderly Montgomery County resident comes in. She lives in a large Victorian and wonders if Seebold might have the right size -- and vintage -- shutter to replace a broken one at home. Yep, he does. But I don't need the hardware, she says.

So Seebold plunges into the arduous task of removing the ancient hinges, glued on by years of dark green paint. He doesn't have to do this, but he knows they'll just get tossed out if he doesn't rescue them now. So she waits until he is finished, signs a waiver, pays a modest amount and leaves.

This is exactly how it is supposed to work at Old House Parts, the salvage operation run by Montgomery Preservation Inc., a nonprofit group that receives grants from Montgomery County and the Maryland Trust for Historic Preservation. Begun in 1985 to preserve Montgomery County's architectural heritage, Old House Parts is now a thriving once-a-week business dedicated to "rescuing and recycling" architectural elements from county homes and buildings. These are then sold to county residents at a relatively low cost -- after the buyer has pledged to use the item in a pre-1940s Montgomery County building and signed a waiver authorizing MPI to inspect the purchase after installation.

"The idea is to recycle the things as necessary, but to keep them in the county," says MPI's Bobbi Hahn. Since Montgomery County had a chance to learn from the problems experienced during the District's earlier building boom, she explains, Old House Parts was started with the hope that at least some of the county's historic artifacts could be saved -- and reused properly.

Because its inventory is donated (for a tax write-off), prices are kept low. A price sheet in the main building spells them out. Unless otherwise marked, columns go for $75, doors cost $35 to $50, sinks $35, molding $1.50 per square foot, radiators $20, mantels $75. Old House Parts also sells banister sets, shutters, windows, old panes of glass, hardware, porch railings and plumbing fixtures -- and just about any kind of salvage that's worth saving. But if you venture past the main building and into the Quonset huts (where most of the exterior salvage is stored), heed the sign that greets you at the entrance: BRING FLASHLIGHT! It's a big dark place.

Old House Parts, 595 N. Stonestreet Ave., Rockville. (301) 907-3219. Open: Saturday noon to 4 p.m. PRESERVING PRINCE GEORGE'S

Montgomery County is not the only local jurisdiction making an effort to save and reuse parts of its architectural history. In March 1987 the Prince George's County Historical and Cultural Trust opened the Newel Post, an architectural salvage shop open two Saturdays a month from March through November. Housed in a corner of a large county warehouse in Upper Marlboro, the Newel Post -- like Old House Parts in Rockville -- encourages donations in exchange for a tax deduction. But, unlike Old House Parts, it places no restrictions on who buys the majority of its stock, or how it's used. (Some of the salvage taken from registered historic sites is restricted, though). Profits are used to further research and to provide restoration grants in the county.

"Our clientele is mostly folks who have recently bought an old house and want to be more or less faithful to the period in repairing and rehabilitating -- or simply maintaining it," says Dick Fisher, assistant manager of the Newel Post. To encourage local use, though, members of the Prince George's County Friends of Preservation are given discounts.

What's for sale at the Newel Post reflects what's been donated. A significant portion of its stock comes from the Buck House (renamed Darnall's Chance), a historic house in Upper Marlboro, whose $900,000 restoration was completed by the county 1 1/2 years ago. What started as a project to restore what was thought to be a fancy mid-19th-century Victorian turned out to be a massive restoration of a house built from 1695 to 1705. "In 1850, the then-owner took the house and totally remodeled it into what was then fashionable, with massive interior fixtures, fancy ironwork, a stucco exterior," explains Fisher. "Underneath, this much older and very interesting structure was discovered."

So what had to be removed -- the Victorian fireplaces, stairwells and all that fancy ironwork -- is now for sale at the Newel Post.

The Newel Post, behind Gateway Ford Tractor, on U.S. 301 between Md. Rtes. 4 and 725, (301) 925-5625. Open: first and third Saturday of the month March through November, second Saturday of July, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and by appointment. PLUMBER'S HELPER

There's no catchy name, no fancy business cards on display inside. Most of the stock is scattered helter-skelter over the 11-acre yard -- sinks on one side, tubs on another, a stack of doors out back. The General Wrecking Co. is not the kind of place casual shoppers go to browse. But if you need a corner sink, a toilet, a stall shower or just about any other piece of functional salvage, the Glen Burnie, Md., yard might be just the place.

Its clientele is mostly contractors, but regular homeowners have also sought it out -- "people that get tired of looking at the stuff and want to redo their homes," says general manage Ed Heppding, who's worked at the lot since 1950.

Heppding does the pricing. "As soon as it hits the ground I put a price on it," he says. "It stops a lot of arguments."

Wall sinks go for $25 to $30, pedestal sinks from $40 to $125 and claw-foot tubs start at $75 and top out at $150. "It all depends on how good they are," says Heppding.

General Wrecking Co., 300 Arundel Corporation Rd., Glen Burnie, Md. (301) 789-6300. Take Exit 3A (Brooklyn) from Baltimore Beltway, then the first left. General Wrecking is about half a mile down on the left. Open: Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. to noon. Closed Sunday. EXTERIOR DECORATING

Andrew Berry of Architectural Americana has a little bit of his stock everywhere. There's the stall at the Washington Antiques Center in Alexandria, where his decorative urns and finials share space with the goods of 50 other dealers. There are the outbuildings in Mount Pleasant, Md., where his partner, H. Weber Wilson, lived until his recent move to Newport, R.I. And there's his back yard.

Mounted serenely on the garage, framed by a rambling rose bush, is "Liberty," a cast aluminum woman's head gone a distinct patinated green. Tucked under a tree is one of two glazed terra-cotta brackets, from Chicago, circa 1910. Lying face down by the fence is a stone angel.

"I have a rule," says the soft-spoken Berry, explaining what it's like to live with what he sells. "If it gets to the living room, it stays."

So the back yard is up for grabs.

Being a dealer -- whether in the "decorative building art" Berry sells or more traditional antiques -- means never getting too attached to things. It also means finding them wherever you can.

"There's a myth that there's great stuff lying around in junkyards," says Berry, who managed the well-known Urban Archaeology shop in Manhattan before moving to the Washington area and joining forces with Wilson four years ago. While he has happened upon a treasure or two from unexpected sources, for the most part he keeps his stock replenished through other dealers, pickers and his own trips to the 30 antiques shows he does a year.

"We're not the people to call for structural things -- flooring, plain doors, switch plates or hardware," says Berry. "Our interest is in things that have decorative value, that can stand on their own.

His stall in Old Town reflects his interest in the decorative. With the exception of a 19th-century chestnut and pine man- tel ($625), very little would need to be installed or built into a room. There are sheet-metal finials from the 1880s ($195 per pair), a piece of carved brownstone ($165), a cast-stone bird bath from the 1920s ($3,200), fireplace tiles ($35 each).

One piece, though, is much too large to be displayed in Old Town -- or even in Berry's back yard. It's a 12-by-8-foot cast cement garden fountain, circa 1930, from an estate in St. Paul, Minn. A massive elephant head is in the middle, surrounded by a delicate jungle motif carving straight out of Kipling. A hotel developer from Hawaii was interested in it once. And people venture out to Mount Pleasant from time to time to have a look. But Berry admits that it will take a special customer to pay the $25,000 asking price. "But I've really got to be willing to pay a lot for something," says Berry, "not to be embarrassed to sell it for a lot."

Architectural Americana, Washington Antiques Center, 209 Madison St., Alexandria. (703) 739-2484. Open: daily 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Tuesday. Or by appointment only (301) 229-9307. LITTLE SHOP OF HARDWARE (AND MORE)

When Ron Allan and Donetta George opened the Brass Knob eight years ago, they stocked their shop with the overflow of architectural antiques and hardware from Allan's personal collection. Since then, they've branched out beyond the nuts and bolts of salvage, and are perhaps best known for their extensive selection of chandeliers, sconces and other period lighting fixtures. They also carry an impressive inventory of the more decorative aspects of salvage -- terra-cotta tiles, cast iron gates, almost-delicate iron heating registers, elaborate capitals. But, in the end, it all comes back to what they started with: doorknobs.

"It's still our single most popular item," says George, perched on a bar stool behind the front counter. Not six feet away are hanging panels fitted with doorknobs: glass knobs, porcelain knobs, decorative brass knobs, simple brass knobs. To her right, in a large wooden bin, are drawers filled with even more knobs. And downstairs, in the surprisingly tidy basement, is another huge cabinet filled with -- you guessed it -- more knobs.

"The hardest thing about this business is keeping everything sorted out," says George, who credits her partner with the knack for keeping everything straight. "No amount of work is too much for Ron. He has a strong ethic to save and reuse. He hates to see waste."

So throughout the shop, housed in a Victorian town house on Adams-Morgan's main drag, there is room upon room of carefully identified pieces of history. At the entrance is an artfully arranged pile of outdoor ornaments and building fragments -- terra-cotta and carved stone fragments ($50 to $475), a cast-iron urn ($395), a four-part cast-iron capital ($825) -- popular for use in the garden these days. Above are chandeliers, which date from 1860 to 1930, all wired for modern houses. The majority are brass, left lacquer-free to age naturally. Along the walls are display cases of glass globes ($15 to $50), decorative windows ($100 to $2,445), mantels ($100 to $4,300) and pedestal sinks ($75 to $700).

In the sunny back room are some of the larger items stocked by the Brass Knob, including a set of yellow pine columns ($995), glass-topped coffee tables made from a variety of cast-iron pieces ($500 to $2,500) and a huge carved oak archway that came from the former French chancery ($8,900). The stairway to the basement is lined with stair parts, reflecting a tiny portion of the bins of balustrades, newel posts and balusters housed in the basement. Also in the basement are more sinks, decorative tiles and a large back room filled with yet-to-be electrified lighting fixures. "We fix them up as we have room for them," says George.

In a small office off to the side sits a personal computer. Is that the secret to their carefully controlled inventory?

"I'm afraid we just use that for our mailing lists," admits George. Her partner keeps track of everything else.

The Brass Knob, 2311 18th St. NW. (202) 332-3370. Open: Monday through Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Additional doors, bathtubs and sinks are kept at a separate warehouse, which is open by appointment only.

in dealer Andrew Berry's back yard.