A 94-year-old structure in the heart of Old Town Alexandria, which at one time served as a firehouse, will be sold by the city next month to the highest bidder. There is one catch: The new owner must agree not to demolish the building and to retain the character of a fire station facade, although the building probably will be used as a store or a residence.

Those two stipulations, mandated by the Alexandria City Council, illustrate the city's concern for preserving the colonial character of Old Town, the oldest part of the city which extends severa blocks west of the Potomac waterfront and centers on King Street.

In recent years dozens of rundown houses have been bought and renovated by speculators and individuals who move into the houses the renovate. At the same time, developers are constructing new townhouses in traditional architectural styles.

The old firehouse at 109 S. St. Asaph St. has been used recently as a storage area by an archaeology group that is digging up old artifacts in a lot across the street. The empty lot is the proposed site of a new courthouse and commercial complex, which has aroused the ire of some Old Town residents because of its design.

Paul D. Schott, Alexandria's general services director, said the firehouse has been appraised recently at $160,000. Schott said he originally estimated that the two story red brick building and an adjoining 1,975 square foot lot would sell for about $150,000, but so many people have expressed an interest in the property that Schott now says the selling price could top $200,000.

Officials said that 23 persons have asked for the notice of sale on the property since the bidding opened Nov. 16, but no formal bid had been received by the city's purchasing office.

The bids will be opened Tuesday by the Alexandria City Council. The Council has reserved the right to deny all the bids and has required that prospective purchasers include a detailed drawing of any proposed changes to the building's facades. Under current zoning laws, the building could be used for either commercial or residential purposes.

Schott said the city is trying to protect the building even though it doesn't come under the city's new 100-year-old historic structures law. That law forbids demolition of 100-year-old buildings no matter where they are in the city.

Charles I. Sampson, a retired Alexandria fire batallion chief who worked at old Station House Number Four for 13 years, remembers the building as a comfortable and friendly place that was usually buzzing with activity because of its downtown location.

Sampson said the firehouse was built in 1883 to house a new steampowered fire engine. Until then, Sampson said, all the equipment had been pulled by horses.

Sampson said the first floor housed two fire engines, a locker room, a stock room and a large dormitory room with nine beds, as well as a meeting room and shower facilities.

Since the firehouse was closed in 1960, the Alexandria Fire Department Association has used it as a gathering place for its members.

Sampson is not happy with the city's decision to sell the building. "I would have preferred to have seen it remain as one of the historic spots of the city," he said.