Preservationists have won the latest round in a two-year battle to preserve the century-old rowhouses of a section of I Street NW known as Red Lion Row.

The structure at 2022 I St. NW, which the owner first began demolishing in the fall of 1976, has won a six-month reprieve from completion of the destruction. State Historic Preservation Officer Lorenzo Jacobs recently signed an order delaying the demolition for 180 days to permit city officials "to negotiate with the owners of the building and civic groups, public agencies and interested citizens to find a means of preserving the building."

A representative of the Howard P. Foley Company, the electrical contracting firm that owns the building and four adjoining rowhouses, argued at a hearing that such negotiations would be "futile."

"There's already been a 740-day delay since we started tearing this building down quite legally," said William Butler, an attorney for the firm.

An application to make the whole block a landmark was pending when the company began tearing down the building. A court order stopped the demolition, and Butler said that since that time no suitable alternatives have been presented to Foley. In the initial demolition the facade ornamentation was removed, a bay demolished and a hole put in the roof, but preservationists say the damage could be repaired.

Negotiations were held in 1977 on another Foley-owned landmark house at 2030 I Street. At that time preservationists presented architectural plans that would retain the rowhouses and place a modern office building behind them. Preservationists also detailed tax advantages and grants available to people who restore historic buildings.

The Foley company countered with an offer to sell its five properties on the block for $2.5 million, but said that there were no buyers. The company also offered to help pay to move the house at 2030 I Street. When the delay period ended last summer, Don't Tear It Down, a preservation group, tried to obtain a court injunction to stop demolition of the house on the grounds that there had been no "meaningful negotiations." The injunction was denied, but demolition was stayed pending appeal. The D.C. Court of Appeals is scheduled to take up the issue next Wednesday.

The house at 2022 I Street is one of a row originally containing four Second Empire style houses. One of these houses contains the Red Lion Inn, and the entire block has been nicknamed Red Lion Row. A matching house at 2020 I Street was torn down in the 1930s when the Foley Company constructed its office building on the site.

Foley officials say they want to construct a larger headquarters building on the site of the rowhouses, which they have purchased over the past 18 years, and that they are not interested in a building that incorporates the townhouse facades.

"We're a worldwide company," said Butler. "We want a corporate headquarters that will appear on our letterhead. Townhouse facades would not be appropriate."

According to Butler, the company has no immediate construction plans but would use for employe parking the space made available by demolition of the house. He said that two of the Foley-owned houses in the row have tenants, one of which has a lease that doesn't expire until 1981. The company wants to demolish 2022 I Street before applying for demolition permits for the rest of the houses because "if one is torn down I don't know how much support there would be for retaining the rest of them," said Butler.

Nancy Schwartz, representing the local chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, urged Jacobs to grant the delay to avoid the "piecemeal destruction" of the block, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"This is the last commercial-residential block facing Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Georgetown to escape large 20th century intrusions," said Schwartz.

The 2000 block of I Street faces Pennsylvania Avenue across a small triangular park. George Washington University owns several buildings on the block. The campus master plan designates the entire block, although the university doesn't own all the property, for a large office building to be rented to gain revenue.

Butler noted at the hearing that the university had not attempted to buy the rowhouses when they were offered for sale by Foley. University spokesmen would not comment on the issue.

The 180-day delay will end in February, when the Foley company will be free to tear down the house, unless some other agreement is reached or action is taken under legislation now being considered by the City Council. The bill would give city officials the power to block demolitions of landmark buildings - including this one - permanently.