Project Hope, the charity that made its name in the last two decades with a gleaming white hospital ship called the SS Hope, has bought a new home and with it a new image in Virginia's scenic Blue Ridge Mountains.

The 20-year-old medical mansion, still headed by its founder, Dr. William Walsh, 58, is spending $4 million to acquire, refurbish and add to Carter Hall, a classic 18th century plantation near Winchester, to serve as a headquarters and resident-scholar study center.

The acquisition, which already has drawn criticism that it is inappropriate for a charity, coincides with a major revision of Hope's activities designed, according to Walsh, to put the charity on a more permanent footing and enable it to outlive its founder.

"The greatest sin I could committ would be to let this foundation die" because of its identification with him, Walsh said. "This (Carter Hall) is not the Walsh Center, it's the Hope Center."

It also is meant to restore vigor to fund-raising efforts of the charity, which depended on the "sex appeal," in the words of a Hope official, of its mercy ship until the vessel was scrapped in 1974. The steep decline in donations that followed left Hope operations closeted in nondescript Georgetown offices without a visible public profile.

Carter Hall will become "The Project Hope Health Sciences Education and Research Center" with administrative offices, staff members and 10 to 12 resident authorities in the field of health care who will exchange ideas and do research - "sort of a high-level rap session," Walsh said. A new, $1 million building will provide office space on the estate.

The charity now focuses on training medical personnel, holding conferences and sponsoring research and is slowly disengaging from direct treatment of the sick. Its programs stretch to 12 countries in South and Central America and Africa, and there are plans to launch a program in Appalachia.

The work will be carried out in a setting that includes the historic main house, formal boxwood gardens, nine outbuildings, a swimming pool and two tennis courts clustered on 193 acres - all acquired in an initial $1.1 million purchase by Hope.

The organization has published a brochure appealing for donations of 17th and 18th-century antiques, with specific requests for "chests, breakfronts, tables, sideboards, chairs and settees, outsized oriental rugs, fine portraits and landscapes."

The mansion's commodious features include bathrooms with parquet floors and sterling silver light fixtures, a basement wine cellar with a 2,000-bottle capacity and a bar with a bright copper sink.

At least one officer of Hope, 20-year board member Percival Brundage, voiced criticism of the Carter Hall move and the quest for antique furnishings, although he joined 19 others directors in unanimously approving the action.

"It seemed a little too much of an undertaking," he said."I thought this would be a little too stylish, a little too high-class and fashionable a venture."

Brundage also said he did not go in for "all this period stuff. I think it's nonsense myself." He called the furniture drive "a little part of the 'State Department conceit.'"

Walsh acknowledged he has been contacted by some contributors who said that if Hope can afford to move into Carter Hall, if no longer needs their financial support. But most callers expressed approval of the move, Walsh said.

The property was purchased partly out of two large bequests to Project Hope by Dr. Ferdinand Lee and Francis Boyer, both of whom gave without restrictions of how the money was to be spent.

Hope now has a $4 million capital fund drive under way to finance the entire project, $1.5 million of it from the Lee-Boyer funds. The drive is about $1 million shy of its goal to date.

Subsequent maintenance expenses will come from Hope's operating budget, according to Walsh.

From the begining, Hope has been dominated by the vision and goals of its founder, a former cardiologist who combines the charm of a country doctor with the confidence and zeal of a real estate developer.

It was Walsh who took a World War II ship, the USS Constellation, out of mothballs in 1960 and sent it on 14 years of voyages, employing more than 3,000 volunteers to provide direct medical care to developing nations in the Far East, Africa, South America and elsewhere.

Today Walsh, who draws an $80,000 yearly salary - two of his sons are also Hope executives, and his wife an unpaid member of the antique furniture committee - remains enormously proud of Hope and concerned for its future.

The flag that flew over SS Hope is framed in the hallway of his Georgetown offices. A portrait of the vessel, with a dove gliding overhead, hangs on the wall. Behind him is a burnished section of railing from the ship.

Walsh began searching in recent years for a suitable new headquarters, and had checked out buildings in Georgetown and along the Beltway, a Project Hope spokesman said.

During that time, Walsh learned about Carter Hall, which was owned by William West and West's sister-in-law, Virginia Farland. Farland's husband, Joseph, a former U.S. ambassador to Iran and Panama, was a member of Hope's board of directors and a long-time friend of Walsh.

Hope's board approved the purchase on Sept. 23, 1977, three days after Joseph Farland resigned as a director.

The purchase price for the main house, nine attendant buildings and 77 acres were $847,000. An additional 116 acres were purchased Sept. 12 of this year for $300,000.

Although Walsh and Hope's accountant, Gary Mallery, said there was no appraisal of the property before it was bought, Hope board chairman Eugene Zuckert asserted to a reporter that the property had been appraised at the time.

Zuckert, a former secretary of the Air Force, refused in an interview to name the appraiser but said the appraisal showed the property to be worth a good deal more than the charity was paying for it. Hope's literature on Carter Hall makes the same point.

The Northern Virginia realtor who handled the sale said that the value of an estate as old as Carter Hall is difficult to establish, in effect saying that it is worth as much as the market will bear.

As for the role of Farland, who sat on the board for months while the purchase of Carter Hall was discussed, Zuckert said, "There's always a potential conflict of interest, but I didn't worry about it as long as there was full disclosure of all the relationships."

Walsh, meanwhile, said he was momentarily uncertain what to hang over the fireplace in the Carter Hall board room, then realized there was only one thing to be placed there.

"A portrait of the ship. I felt so very small and ungrateful for even questioning it."