In a newly renovated, pastel-colored rowhouse on First Street NW live six women, aged 21 to 50, who have spent most of their lives at Forest Haven in Laurel, Md., the District institution for the mentally retarded.

The six women are among the vanguard of Forest Haven residents who are moving out of the institution and into community facilities. Under an order issued last summer by U.S. District Court Judge John H. Pratt the city must close Forest Haven and return the more than 900 residents to the community. Since the order, 96 residents have been sent to foster homes, their own homes or group homes such as the house in the 2300 block of First Street.

The home, known as the Washington House, is one of nine group homes the city either operates or has contracts with to house Forest Haven residents.

In 1974, the building was a charred shell given to the city by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Its transformation to a livable dwelling was accomplished with $35,000 raised by members of the Businessmen's Advisory Committee of Forest Haven, a group of business executives formed five years ago under the leadership of Victor G. Morris, media relations director of Montgomery Ward, Inc.

The house opened last September, and in January, Mayor Marion Barry, other city officials and the businessmen's committee, held an official dedication ceremony.

The dedication was a visible victory in what had been several years of negotiations with government officials and District residents to make the group home a reality. The less visible victory, however, is in the private struggles of the six residents to blend into the world around them, where privacy and individuality are the rule, instead of the exception.

The women had spent an average of 19 years at Forest Haven, workers said. Five were admitted as infants of teen-agers. Although a few of the women have spent some time in other group home programs, the move to the Washington House has permanently put behind them the days of living in Forest Haven cottages that sometimes housed as many as 80 women.

It also meant major readjustments, workers said. Social and educationl training at Forest Haven had been minimal, they explained, and the school system is not required to provide adult-education programs for the mentally retarded. In fact, only one of the women can read or write.

"When I first met them, they didn't have the confidence," said resident counselor Ernestine Taylor, a somber, rotund woman, who is mother hen to the group. "They couldn't cook, clean, wash dishes, travel or do anything on their own."

But it hasn't taken long, Taylor said, for the women to learn.

Now, on an average day, three of the women, Sandy, Vicky and Grace, rise at 4 a.m., wash, dress and prepare their own breakfasts before going to the Trailways Bus terminal. There, they catch a city bus that takes them to jobs at Forest Haven.

The three other residents, Christine, Lynn and Carolyn, follow a similar schedule after getting up at 7 a.m. to get ready for jobs in the city.

After work, the six women return home to share chores of their "family."

"Grace made chicken livers last week. Liked to chop me to death. Sandy (used to be) afraid to turn the stove on. Now she'll fry pork chops, make egg salad. She can cook anything," Taylor bragged.

Still, learning the ways of modern life has not been without its hardships.

"I don't like riding those escalators (in the Metro station)," Grace complained, "because..."

"... those people step on your feet and don't say excuse me or nothing!" Lynn chimed in.

Despite the struggles, each one said she was overjoyed to be back in the community.

"Yes, Lord! Forest Haven ain't hitting on nothing!" exclaimed Lynn, who is 21 years old. "I like to visit. I don't like sitting around the house. You couldn't go out and visit people at Forest Haven."

"I think when I was at Forest Haven it wasn't much like a home," said Carolyn, 24. "You can do things on your own after you get in a home. I like that."

Later, Grace, 50, took a visitor on a tour of the five-bedroom, three-story house. She talked lovingly about the private and semiprivate bedrooms, the thick, new carpeting and her own portable television set, a present from her boyfriend.

"We had to sleep in a dormitory at Forest Haven," she grimaced. "I like it better here. There, you didn't have a lot of privileges like we do here. We couldn't go to outside movies without an escort. And you don't feel like being with a group all the time."

Before starting dinner, the women joined in a round table discussion of their lives and their dreams. They spoke enthusiastically about traveling, marriage, children, living in their own apartments, enjoying an active social life and careers.

At the home, two full-time and one part-time resident counselors supervise the women. Training at the home consists of teaching the women how to count, manage money, cook, clean and take care of their personal needs. The women receive additional training at their jobs.

"If they were to come before the courts today, I think many of them would not have been sent to Forest Haven," said Chester Jones, the administrator at Forest Haven.

On reason, he said, is that people are now realizing "Even the most severely retarded can advance when given the opportunity."

Josephine Carter, a resident counselor, echoed Jones' beliefs. Until she came to work in the group home, Carter said, she never realized how articulate and ambitious the six women were.

"Honestly, I know more about them now than I did in the 14 years I'd been at Forest Haven. When I was in Hawthorne Cottage (at Forest Haven), there were 80 ladies in there. All you could try to do was keep them from hurting themselves," she said. "I'm happy to be in the community!"

The Rev. Richard Adams said he came to Forest Haven in the 1960s to establish the institution's first speech program. Adams now directs the staff members responsible for locating community homes for the residents.

He spoke fondly of children who had grown up in the institution. But he also recalled some of the problems in an institution the size of Forest Haven.

For instance, he said, he discovered that some of the youths he had taught were deaf, not retarded. Others were only mildly retarded and would have progressed rapidly with the proper training. An he remembers helping workers change the diapers of severely retarded adults who had never been toilet trained.

Time and progress often move slowly for residents and staff members in an institution, Adams said. But, he added, the process seems to reverse itself in small, community residences, such as group homes.

"I've been a part of Forest Haven 16 years," Adams said. "When they (the residents) hit the group homes it's almost like (they're) coming out of darkness into light." CAPTION:

%picture, Charles Inlander, whose job it is to help phase out Forest Haven, the city institution for the retarded. By Craig Herndon -- The Washington Post