For the last 10 years, to a chorus of bursting pipes and wheezing boilers, the downtown YMCA had been dying an elaborate and dramatic death.

In January the wind knifes throungh holes in the locker room walls: in August, runners pound around the inside track through the damp close heat of a gym without air conditioning.

The handball courts leak, part of the gym floor gave way not long ago, and the camp-trollers's secretary keeps a raincoat in the closet so she can cover the typewriter every time a ruptured main sends water shooting through the plaster.

It is a very tired YMCA, but it is also very cheap - $100 per year for general membership; $285 for the men's deluxe. That is considerable less than most health clubs and so the downtown YMCA still beckons a determined collection of lawyers, cabbies, college students, and GS 4s who pay their yearly dues and put up with it.

Now, after three years of feasibility studies and figuring, the downtown YMCA is being replaced. In January, 1978, plans are for a brand new YMCA to open its doors at 17th Street; and Rhode Island Avenue NW. where a growing steel framework now suggests the shape of the building to come. It will be a grand, impressive structure of conrete and glass, the most modern YMCA in the country. It will have an Olympic-size pool, a leadership training center, and a complete cardiovascular testing facility. Even its name will command admiration - the National Capital YMCA.

As the membership fees stand now, it will cost the general membership men $325 to join this new YMCA, not including the initiation fee of $200 (reduced $50 for those who join before this November). For men who want use of such extras as the sauna and whirlpool, the membership fee will be $495 per year, plus $250 initiation. And the women, on the theory that fewer of them use the YMCA, have only one option, for which they will pay $405 per year, plus $250 initiation.

It is a long way from the eager little Christian fellowship set up in a 12th Street NW rooming house back in 1852. Today's YMCA is a nonprofit corporation in the middle of an exploding business district, a YMCA whose leaders have watched Ys fold in other parts of the country and are determined to keep this one alive.

No more cheap rooms for incoming strangers. "The cost of maintaining them just blows your mind," said Thomas Hargrave, executive director of the Washington YMCA. And no more mounting deficit, which has reached $395.000 over the last 10 years.

This YMCA will be a model athletic, planning, and training center. Hargrave said, adding that although there may be some "modification" of the new rates, the facility has got to pay for itself, "I don't think, when we get through and we complete our membership work, that people are going to be cut out," he said.

There are those in the locker rooms of the downtown YMCA who disagree, some so passionately that they have circulated petitions and written long letters protesting the new rates.

Someone stuck a cartoon to the wall of the men's athletic club: a little band of men laughing uproariously, and below them, scribbled in by hand, "495 a year!" The Watergate Health Club, YMCA members keep muttering, costs $495 per year, and there is no $250 initiation fee. "At these rates," one YMCA member complained, "they're not a community service organization at all."

"It's too much money," declared Tom Bennett, an American Institute of Architects government specialists who lunges into the basketball court or the swimming pool during his lunch hour. "I'll have to find another place to play."

"On a GS 4, forget it," said Kathleen O'Connor, who is rehabilitating an injured leg by running on the inside track. "They're pricing me out of the market." She looked up at the peeling paint on the locker room walls. "Forget the class," she said. "I don't need the class. I'm perfectly satisfied using this grungy old building."

Hargrave despairs of this sort of talk, saying some members just don't understand the YMCA. "The public somehow still sees us as a cheap health club, and we're not that," he said. "That's just one of a hundred programs that we run." He spoke of leadership training, of vocational and remedial education, of international YMCA cooperation. And, he said, the building plans are as simple as the YMCA cooperation. And, he said, the building plans are as simple as the YMCA executive board knew how to make them.

"I don't see the frills," said Marvin Reinke, associate general executive of the downtown YMCA. "There are o frills about the rate of water, and unless members can vote not to take showers, you've got to have water. We've got to operate in a responsible fiscal manner."

Washington's YMCA was the inspiration of three young government patent office clerks who shared a mutual dismay at the moral decay around them. In 1852 they formed the Young Men's Christian Association, a benevolent fellowship based on the model of an 1844 London society.

Boston had already established the first American YMCA, in 1851. and with an enthuasism inspired by Protestant zeal, the young Washington men set up in Mary Worthington's boarding house and went about attracting members.

They ministered to refugees and to the wounded during the Civil War, and in 1864 in a handwritten decree signed by Abraham Lincoln, the small fellowship wa "hereby incorporated and made the name of the Young Men's Christian Association of the City of Washington." By 1869 they had built a splendid gymnasium at 9th and D Streets NW, and there the fellowship grew under the leadership of the evangelical Protestant church.

In 1885 the YMCA moved out to 18th and G Streets to take over the Columbia Athletic Club, a private gym with bowling alleys and a swiming pool. It was an elegant place, but it needed repair, and by 1906 the YMCA had built the seven-story building that still stands on the corner.

Using that and an auxiliary building in back, the YMCA offered athletics and six different school programs (including law and automotive repair) to a neighborhood of townhouses and wooden sidewalks that gradually gave way to the massive office buildings that now make up downtown Washington.

For many years the downtown YMCA was a segregrated facility. Black residents used the Anthoney Bowen YMCA, which was named after the freed slave who opned it, and which still stands, its swimming pool shut down and its pipes decaying, at 1816 12th Street NW.

In 1960 the downtown YMCA officially admitted black members and about 10 years ago built a small locker room for women who wanted the long pool, squash courts and indoor track not offered by the YWCA.

In August 1973, the General Services Administration told the downtown YMCA that the government needed 17,0000 square feet of the 18th and G Streets property - including the auxiliary gym, swimming pool, and handball and squash courts - for a Federal Home Loan Bank building.

"We couldn't very well argue with the Feds." Hargrave said. The YMCA sold the land, he said, and with the loss of those facilities "we went into a tailspin financially."

With nearly half its athletic facilities gone, membership dropping and the 70-year-old building decaying into a morass of corroding pipes and sagging walls, the downtown YMCA was in serious trouble. It was time to move, officials decided, and to bring a new image to the Washington YMCA.

It would not, they concluded, be a child-oriented YMCA: their studies assumed that most children lived nearer the suburbs and the old but still functional Bowen facility. Instead of YMCA would include a training center for youth leaders, an international meeting hall, and health equipment modern enough to be used as a standard of new YMCA's across the country.

The cost estimates came in 1973 - $3,700,000 for construction: $1,500,000 for the site they had chosen at 17th and RHode Island Ave. The project was approved. A private firm brought the 18th and G Streets building for $5 million, saying it would raze the structure and put offices on the side, and the National Capital YMCA planning got underway.

As the plans grew, so did the cost estimate. By November 1974 the building costs were projected at $4,472,493; by October 1975 they were $635,000. "We almost went into a state of shock," Hargrave said. They considered quitting outright, he said, but instead ordered the architect to cut $1 million from the building costs. When they had been promised a final construction price $5,217,706. YMCA officials accepted the proposal and the project broke ground.

Their plans demand $2 million more to complete the building program, and the money, officials said, must come from the membership drive. YMCA's have traditionally charged what they believe the surrounding communities ean afford to pay - the Bethesda YMCA. for example, charges $135 annually, while the Bowen YMCA. which receives United Way subsidies, charges only $12 for adults and $5 for youths.

Membership at the central (downtown) branch has been subsidized by the rest of the Association" Reinke said. explaining why the rates at the downtown YMCA have stayed relatively low even as the costs rose. If the Capital YMCA does not charge enough to pay for itself, "it means that the corporation goes bankrupt." he said. And like other YMCA officials, he believes that the new prices are at a level today's downtown Washington can afford.