Since 1961, its dignity has been shattered by a firebomb, dissidents have handcuffed themselves to its front door and its Czechoslovakian residents have irreverently flown laundry from the flagstaff atop its roof.

But in earlier and more lavish eras, the Cuban Embassy, located on the brow of Meridian Hill at 2630 16th Street NW, knew happier times of elegance and champagne.

"It ranked with the best embassies in town in terms of glamour and prestige," said Hope Ridings Miller, who was society editor for The Washington Post in those times. "The Cubans frequently held moonlit garden parties in the back, with rumba music and the finest food imaginable. The elite constantly went to parties there because it was quite a social center.

The parties suddenly ended after Fidel Castro and his force of revolutionaries swept their way through the Cuban country side in '59 and finally succeeded in overthrowing the Havana military regime of Fulgencio Batista.

As a result, Batista's envoys in embassies all over the world suddenly found themselves jobless and homeless, replaced in their diplomatic chairs by strictly business-minded emissaries of the new Communist government.

At the Cuban mansion in Washington, Castro's representatives did not stay long. In 1961, with the complete severance of relations between the United States and Communist Cuba, the U.S. government closed all Cuban embassies in this country.

Now, after 17 years of Cold-War hostility between them, the two countries are slowly moving toward a raprochement. They have agreed to establish "interest sections" on each other's soil, with American diplomats returning to Havana and Cuban officials coming back to Washington.

Currently an advance team of Cuban technicians, including painters, carpenters, and electricians, is at work on Havana's embassy building here, attempting to restore the Spanish-style sandstone mansion to its original stature and physical grace.

It's doubtful, however, that social gatherings hosted there in the future by envoys of Communist Cuba will ever have the luster and grandeur of those for which capitalist Cuba was famous.

In the years prior to 1959, according to Hope Ridings Miller, diplomats and socialites loved to mingle and dance at the mansion - at spectacular dinner soirees that sometimes lasted through the night.

Downstairs, a 21-piece orchestra would play in the ballroom and smaller brass bands, resplendent in rumba costume, would entertain Washington's elite on a dance floor set up in the garden.

Upstairs, above the plush red-carpeted floor in the foyer and the grand staircase below, there was food. Native cuisine like suckling pig with sour organes and black beans and rice, and American dishes like turkey, ham and steamed vegetables would deck oaken tables in rooms with rows of French windows overlooking Meridian Hill Park.

Through the years, statesmen, diplomats and prominent Washington socialites such as Jinx Falkenberg, Mrs. Cordell Hull and Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt did the cha-cha there amidst the company and glee of some of the most chic and influential people in the world.

"Cuba always sent its best people here," Miller said, "because the U.S. and Cuba were so close. The ambassadors were charming and brilliant men."

They were extraordinarily colorful as well. Dr. Pedro Fraga, who was Cuba's ambassador here in the years immediately prior to World War II was frequently in the news as a result of his late-night parties, his outspoken dislike for the climate in Washington and his Latin code of gentlemanly honor, which led him in 1939 to challenge a critical political cartoonist in Havana to a duel.

Nicolas Arroyo resided in Cuba's embassy here between 1958 and 1959 and was its last ambassador in Washington. Arroyo's political stance led him in 1958 to refuse the admission of 14-year-old Felipe Pazos to a Washington premier at the Embassy of the film. "The Old Man and the Sea," Young Pazos, whose family in Cuba was sympathetic to Castro's cause, co-starred with Spencer Tracy in the film.

It was Arroyo who returned to Washington from a New Year's Eve party in New York in 1959 to find the offices of his mansion occupied by jubilant officials and sympathizers of Castro's finally triumphant revolution, including one Angel Saavedra, an official in the embassy for the two previous years, who proudly disclosed that he had been a spy for Castro all along.

For the last 16 years, though, since the time Castro's representatives were forced to return home, the Cuban Embassy has been without any official function. At the request of the Cuban government, the Czechoslovakian Embassy here has maintained the building since 1961, and has had three members of its diplomatic staff residing there.

Now Castro's envoys are preparing to return to the mansion which, in their absence, has experienced several mockeries to the majesty it once held.

In 1963, for instance, three Cuban veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion hurled molotov cocktails at the embassy, but succeeded only in destroying shrubbery in front of the building.

In 1970 four men waving "Free Cuba" banners handcuffed themselves to the front door of the mansion to demonstrate their opposition to communism.

And all throughout the last 16 years, the three Czechoslovakian caretakers have dried their laundry by hanging it from a flag pole on the roof.

Yet the building is still in good condition, according to Manuel Rubido, an inspections officer for Castro's Foreign Ministry.

Rubido is in Washington overseeing the maintenance work being done on the building by 15 Cuban technicians, and locating housing for the 10 diplomats who will comprise the staff of the Cuban Interests Section.

"We're doing plumbing, electrical and painting work," Rubido said, "but the building is in fine shape."

Executive Protective Service guards are patroling the premises around the clock, and no one, excluding the members of the Cuban advance team, is allowed to enter the building.

A quick glance through the windows in the front door, however, reveals remnants of the embassy's past - the red carpet is still in the foyer, though slightly less royal and plush than before, and the staircase, dusty and chipped in spots, remains elegantly grand.

"No one will live in this building now," Rubido said. "It will be used strictly for official Cuban business."