When the smoke clears after the battle for seedy but historic Rhodes Tavern, at the corner of 15th and F streets NW, preservation history will have been made in Washington.

On one side are the history buffs who want to save the three-story, stucco-covered brick building, now a humble newsstand and fruit shop but once the place where a British admiral dined while watching the White House burn.

On the other side is the District government, developer Oliver T. Carr Jr. and the preservationist group called Don't Tear It Down, which, interestingly enough, wants to tear it down.

At issue is not only the survival of the 179-year-old building but a precedent-setting interpretation of the city's new preservation law.

"If Rhodes Tavern is lost, not a landmark building in Washington will be safe," said Joseph Grano, founder of The Citizens Committee to Save Rhodes Tavern.

"Not necessarily so," said Leila Smith, one of the drafters of the new law. "There are other factors involved."

The curious anti-tavern alliance of developer, city and preservation group surfaced at a three-day hearing this week before Carol Thompson, the mayor's agent who alone will decide if the city will permit demolition of the oldest standing commercial building in downtown Washington.

The tavern is so old its construction followed guidelines laid down by George Washington; so old it has witnessed every presidential inaugural parade since Thomas Jefferson's; so old that no one paid it much attention until it became the last downtown building of its kind.

But no one argues that it's pretty.

Carr has asked for permission to demolish or remove the building under an as yet untested section of city law permitting destruction of land-mark-designated buildings provided the owner's proposed replacement project qualifies as one of "special merit" to the District.

Carr's design would replace the tavern and several adjoining buildings with a $60 million, 12-story office building containing 900,000 square feet of office and retail space plus a huge interior atrium.

It would incorporate the elaborate Beaux Arts facades of two landmark buildings just north of the tavern as well as the historic interior of the Old Ebbitt Grill, which would be moved within the new complex.

The Carr design specifically excludes the tavern, which was serving food and drink in 1801 when the White House was barely livable and the Capitol building incomplete.

The three-story, red brick (now stucco covered) tavern gained notoriety when, in 1814, its propretor served a chicken dinner there to invading British officers Admiral Cockburn and General Ross, who reportedly blew out the candles so as to eat by the light of the burning White House.

The tavern then slipped into relative obscurity and was used over the next century and a half as a boarding house, bank, health club, stationery store, restaurant, shoe store and artist studio as well as a gun and tackle store where President James Garffield's assassin reportedly bought his revolver.

Twenty years ago, the northern two-thirds of the tavern was demolished to make way for a one-story bank. The ghostly outline of the old roofline is still visible on an adjoining wall.

In 1964, the truncated and much altered tavern was made a District landmark by the Joint Committee on Landmarks. Five years later, it made the National Register for Historic Places.

Carr and his architect argue that the three-fourths of a block building design is much improved with an even cornice line, which suggests the three-story tavern doesn't fit nicely into a combined eight- and 12-story high complex.

At least two achitects, however, have proposed alternatives to the Carr design. Thomas Simmons and Darrel Rippetau nestled the tavern against the new high rise but with a gentle stepback that softens the different rooflines.

At last week's hearing Leila Smith of Don't Tear It Down (DTID) infuriated many preservationists by reading a statement supporting the Carr project.

DTID, Washington's major preservation group, entered into an agreement with Carr last summer in which Carr agreed to incorporate into his project the legally unprotected Beaux Arts, Keith-Albee theater building for which he already had a demolition permit. DTID had to agree, in exchange, the support Carr's entire project.

Forced to choose between saving the theater and the tavern, DTID chose the theater.

"The popular support just isn't there for the tavern," said Smith.

"They should give up their name or get out of the business," sniffed Eva Hinton, veteran Georgetown preservationist after the DTID testimony.

Jim Gibson, assistant city administrator for planning and development, praised the Carr project and called it one of special merit.

"We are now on the verge of creating what Mayor Barry calls a 'living downtown'," he said. "Preservation should not be used as a lever to deter sound new development."

National Geographic editor Jerry Linder, who helped found the Committee to Save Rhodes Tavern 18 months ago, called the building "the last of its kind . . . a microcosm of major, and minor activities of the city's past."

Donald Lehman of the Treasury Historical Society, in a dramatic reading replete with bounding eyebrows, pounding fists and illustrations held aloft, declared "the destruction of the tavern would tear a gaping hole in the rich tapestry of the city's history."

But for many, history alone is not enough. The fight over the tavern has effectively removed from the preservation lines some architects and building lovers who see the tavern's squat shape as something rather hard to love.

Carter Brown, chairman of the Fine Arts Commission, has called the tavern "the missing tooth in the smile of 15th Street."

When all the testimony is weighed -- Thompson is to render her decision by Fed. 11, 1981 -- there is still one last recourse left to either side. the decision can be appealed to the Court of Appeals. CAPTION: Picture, 179-year-old Rhodes Tavern in foreground, at corner of 15th and F streets Nw. Linda Wheeler; Copyright (c) The Washington Post