The city's artists are climbing down from their garrets to take up residence at the new Washington Humanities and Arts Center in the old Lansburgh's building on E between 7th and 8th streets NW.

The long-awaited renovations of the city's first department store is being done by a crew of women construction workers who will transform the dusty, forgotten hub of the old commercial district into a bustling community arts center with theaters, restaurants, galleries, stores and enough studio and office space for 36 local arts groups.

Since December, 20 women from Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) have been training for careers in construction while renovating the building under the tutelage of the Washington Building and Trades Council. The project is funded by CETA through the D.C. Department of Employment Services.

So far they have put up 15 walls, creating office space and dance studios for the 24 groups now located in Lansburgh's.

"These womem are very excited about the project," says WOW Director Susan Gilbert. "They'll take their daughters and sister to the center and can say, 'I built these walls.'"

Renovation of the six-story building is scheduled to be completed this June, with a grand opening planned in September, according to Phil Ogilvie, project head and director of the D.C. Foundation for Creative Space. The foundation has financed the first stage of the project by matching a $250,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts with donations from local groups. It also will hold a series of fundraisers.

The artists, who will occupy 2 1/2 floors of the $1.5 million complex, will share the space with the District Department of Human Services and the Office of Criminal Justice -- occupants of the building since the National Archives moved out in 1979.

The District government will pay for heat and in return will be able to collect rent for previously unused space.

The tenants were chosen from theater troupes, dance companies, musicians, artists and writers working in the District. They include the City Museum; the Washington Woman's Art Center; GALA Inc., Hispanic Theater; Greg Reynolds' Dance Quintet and the Museum of Temporary Art.

Ogilvie, former director of the Toronto Zoo, seems to have made everyone happy in the process of finding a new use for an old white elephant.

District officials say they are pleased because the project offers a sorely needed community arts center at minimal cost. "The Washington Humanities and Arts Center project is a fine example of a cooperative effort between the city government and members of the arts community," says Mildred Bautista, Barry's adviser for cultural affairs.

Janet Schmuckal, curator of the Museum of Temporary Art, says she thinks that the project will increase the community spirit that the District often lacks because of the emphasis on national institutions such as the Capitol and Kennedy Center. "What we can get from Lansburgh's is a strong District presence."

More exciting than the building itself, some artists say, is the idea of banding together to utilize facilities and attract funds at a time when many grants are drying up. Vernard Gray, director of the Miya Gallery, calls it "building the cultural industry."

The project is so attractive, according to Ogilvie, that community arts centers in Phoenix and Richmond have been modled on Lansburgh's. "The building is unique," he says, with obvious pride. "There's nothing quite like it anywhere in the country."

Officials of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. (PADC), which owns the building, say the arts centers fits in with plans to revitalize the city. "The whole idea of making the building available is to revitalize the downtown area," says Anderson Barnes, PADC director. "The arts groups make a wonderful contribution to that goal."

However, the lease on the building could expire as soon as 1984 if the PADC is ready at that time to go ahead with plans to develop a "superblock" -- an area of expensive residences and shops that would be built between 7th, 9th, Pennsylvania and E streets NW. Te plans call for PADC to turn Lansburgh's into a luxury apartment complex.

Financial feasibility studies of the plans recently were completed and will be presented to the PADC board of directors within the next several weeks. PADC officials say the board could modify the project, and there is a chance Lansburgh's could remain an arts center.

The artists' groups don't seem too worried about the lease or the fact that they could find themselves on the streets in a city with little space to spare.

"Artists, unfortunately, are used to living month to month," says Helene Steene of the Washington Women's Arts Center.

Many tenants are optimistic that the center will be in Lansburgh's permanently, and Ogilvie says it would be "political suicide" for PADC to evict a successful community arts center.

"I find it difficult to believe an agency of the government is going to put literally millions of dollars into luxury residences. It would certainly make a mockery of all the talk of fiscal restraint," he says.

But while PADC officials privately indicate that Lansburgh's may be around indefinitely, the official position follows the letter of the lease.

"The lease is a legal document," Barnes says. "Phil (Ogilvie) has read the lease.So he knows the legal conditions under which the agreement was made."

Depsite the tenuous future of the Arts and Humanities Center, people are enthusiastic." "At least we have a chance of surviving," says Jim Patterson, director of the Dance Exchange and head of the tenants' council. "For most of us, it's the first space we don't have to beg, borrow or steal from others."