A $7.5 million apartment building, hailed by the sponsors as a model residence for senior citizens, opened its doors to the first trickle of new tenants last weekend. The dropcloths still covered the floor and plaster smell hung in the air, but residents were ecstatic about their new home.

"I know this has added 10 years to my life," said Gladys E. Smith, 77, the second tenant to move into the building at 2801 14th St. NW. "I was so tired from moving last night, I just fell down in the bed. But I love it; the place is beautiful, and you just wait till I fix it up."

The building, NCBA Estates, is the result of a four-year effort by the National Caucus for the Black Aged Development Corp. of Washington, D.C. The corporation comprises representatives of two nonprofit groups -- the Center on the Black Aged and the National Center for Housing Management.

The building offers special features to make life easier for independent senior citizens. Guardrails run along every hallway and are discreetly attached to bathtubs. Elevators have floor numbers printed in Braille. "Panic buttons" in each bedroom and bathroom can summon help in an emergency and are connected to the 24-hour security system. Special smoke detectors are designed to alert sight- and hearing-impaired tenants.

Each of the 174 apartments features a separate living room, kitchen, bedroom and bath, and most have an enclosed outdoor terrace. About 10 percent of the apartments have adaptations for the handicaped, including wider doorways and tubs that can accommodate a wheelchair.

Eight hundred applications for residency were sent out in December through senior citizens' groups, community organizations and social service agencies.

Applicants had to be District residents and at least 62 years old, and their incomes had to be low enough to qualify for Section 8 housing subsidies from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Tenants' rent will be 25 percent of their incomes, and the remainder of the rent will be paid by HUD. The tenants' average income is $273 a month, so their average monthly rent will be $68.25. Most apartments in the building would rent for an estimated $481 per month, and several larger units would rent for $485, according to an NCBA spokesman.

The project was financed principally by HUD, although the District government contributed $100,000 and more than $1 million was raised through donations.

The building's staff will provide training for prospective housing managers from other cities who have an interest in working with the elderly. The staff also will provide comprehensive services for senior citizens. One of the key services is a daily meal that residents must pay for and will be encouraged to eat. The meal service will begin in about six weeks, as soon as all the tenants have moved in. The meals will cost each tenant $100 a month.

According to Kathy Coleman, a project director with the National Caucus and Center on the Black Aged, some prospective tenants objected to the mandatory meal. But Gladys Smith can't wait for the meal plan to start.

"I love the part about being together in the dining room," she said. "It'll be like a family -- we'll be all together here, you just see." CAPTION: Picture 1, James Stanley, 69, tries out the guardrails that line the corridors of NCBA Estates.; Picture 2, The $7.5 million NCBA Estates is to be a model residence for the elderly.; Picture 3, Rose E. Jones, one of the new tenants at NCBA Estates, turns on an auxiliary bathroom heater. Other special features for the elderly are an emergency pull chain and a guardrail. Photos by Paul Bernstein for The Washington Post