THE BUILDING is a box squatting on the skyline, a box containing boxes. It is T functionally satisfactory but esthetically embarrassing. The three big theaters in it, each in its own carton, serve the public well. Their sight lines are acceptable, their acoustics are terrific. There is no doubt that they work. They are vastly more successful than Edward Durrell Stone's tawdry and half-hearted architectural conceits.

He said he'd been inspired by other river monuments -- the Louvre by the Seine, the grand Lincoln Memorial, the Thames' Houses of Parliament -- but such claims are as tenuous as his building's decorations. Its stone veneer is paper-thin, its columns skinny as matchsticks. It looks less like the Lincoln than like the gift-wrapped package that the Lincoln came in. Stone's building is pretentious. It is also shoddy. Usually it is bandanged-up with scaffolding. It was designed so badly that lawsuits prompted by its leaky roof eventually cost Stone his $250,000 fee.

Theater buildings tend to call for references to the antique, for marble halls and colonnades, chandeliers and statues. Stone's, in its cost-cutting way, bows to that tradition. He gilded its thin columns, coated it in marble, and sprinkled its vast halls with assorted objets d'art. His color scheme, of course, is rococo red and gold. But while rococo calls for graceful curves, Stone employed blank planes. Statues should seem noble, but the bust there of John Kennedy makes the viewer cringe. Stone promised us a monument, "a great national shrine," but his 630-foot-long building, with its countless chintzy details and acres of red plush, is both dull and grandiose. It looks more like a Tad's Steak House than a temple to the Muse.

There is a reason for its ugliness. Stone, when he designed it, had no good reason to expect he would ever see it built.

Dwight Eisenhower was still president when Stone began to plan the National Cultural Center in 1958. The site on the Potomac would be a gift from Congress, but the money for the building -- some $70 million -- was expected to pour in not from the U.S. Treasury, but from the private sector. The cash was not forthcoming (the private sector then was not notably less stingy than it is today), so Stone began again. His costly first scheme, based on circles, was filed and forgotten -- but not entirely forgotten: its arcs, which were to echo the bend of the Potomac, led to the design of the Watergate next door.

Time was running out. Congress, in its wisdom, had placed a five-year option on the offer of the site. Stone, now pressed toward compromise, returned to his drawing board. He considered, for a while, a group of smaller buildings, a promising idea that was nonetheless rejected. Then, in 1962, with his budget shrinking daily and the deadline fast approaching, he came up with the box.

He thought that he could sell it, for it looked like a reprise, on a vastly grander scale, of his-much applauded U.S. embassy in India. It would cost, he was convinced, not $70 million, but less than half that much. The model he unveiled in September 1962 had the idiot-simple lines of a fund-raiser's cartoon: this space is for opera, that one is for theater, this is how you get there. Donors like to see where their money is to go.

Fourteen months later, shots rang out in Dallas. The Congress, still in shock and mourning, seized as a memorial Stone's ill-considered sketch.

Pushed by Roger Stevens, he much improved its contents. The theaters' shapes were changed, their entrances were altered, and specialists were hired to perfect their acoustics -- but Stone's envelope remained.

We're stuck with it.