Around the time the car dealers and hamburger vendors settled along Baltimore Avenue in Hyattsville in the 1950s, the city's Victorian homes were falling into disrepair. Their porches began sagging, their paint began peeling, and their lawns began sporting crabgrass and weeds.

Today, behind the string of car dealers and fast food outlets, the town's Victorian homes have undergone another transformation. Their porches are sturdy, their exteriors freshly painted, and their lawns once again are neatly trimmed.

Inside the houses, new homeowners spend their weekends and evenings stripping paint from the wood floors, tearing down false ceilings, and ripping wood paneling off the walls. They plaster and paint and varnish, and eventually their houses look similar to when they were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Like forgotten jewels, rediscovered one at a time, the small old cities on the outskirts of Washington get a polishing.The trend began about 15 years ago, when new homeowners began restoring homes in Rockville and Alexandria. More recently, they began restoring in Takoma Park and Hyattsville.

There are about 15,000 people who live in Hyatsville, straddling Rte. 1 about two miles northeast of the District line.About one fourth of the city's homes were built at the turn of the century in an area between Baltimore Avenue and Queens Chapel Road. Many of the old houses are Victorians or colonials, two to four stories high, with attics and basements, four to eight bedrooms, high ceilings and wood floors and fireplaces in several rooms.

The new homeowners in Hyattsville are mostly couples in their late 20s and early 30s who like old houses but could not afford to own one in Rockville, Georgetown, Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle or Alexandria. All purchased their homes within the past few years for between $40,000 and $70,000, a fraction of the cost of similar homes in those other neighborhoods.

"I didn't want a rambler or a split-level when I could live in a house with 10-foot ceilings and beautiful woodwork," said Carmelita Taylor, who recently purchased an 85-year-old frame house with four bedrooms on Jefferson Street for $50,000. Taylor said she and her husband searched for "an old house in need of help" because she could not afford a house in good condtion, and because "we like to do this [restoration]work. We enjoy it."

The restoration fever in Hyattsville also has attracted a few speculators who buy old houses, make some repairs and sell them at $10,000 profit. "This place is going to be the next Alexandria, and I want to be on top of it," claims Gary Baker, 25, who has purchased, repaired and sold several homes in Hyattsville.

A few of the city's long-time residents complain that the newcomers are spending so much time on their houses that they don't have time to be neighborly. "Nowadays they probably intend to be friendly, but for some reason we don't get to see people like we used to," Egbert Tingley, 75, the former postmaster.

Adds Francis Geary, the 56-year-old town historian: "Originally in Hyattsville, people had a lot of pride in their community, and there was a kind of friendly competition between Hyattsville and Laurel over which town would get their water system or electricity first. Now, there's a more personal kind of pride, pride in the home. But I suppose one will bring the other."

The homes that are undergoing restoration in Hyattsville are among the oldest in Prince George's County. Real estate agents say that at least one third of the homes in the Victorian corridor have been restored during the past five years.

Most of the original homeowners who moved to Hyattsville in the late 1800s and early 1900s were government workers. There also was a banker, a newspaper publisher and a pharmicist. Those who didn't work in Hyattsville traveled to Washington on the electric streetcar or along the B & O Railroad, for a 12-minute ride to Union Station.

"The streetcar was very convenient," said Tingley, who rode it as a child. "It got people out of the city but not really in the country."

At the time, Prince George's County consisted of corn and tobacco fields, with only a few small cities like Hyattsville, Laurel, Bladensburg and Mt. Ranier dotting its western border. But by World War II, the county had lost some of its rural charm. Subdivisions, highways and stores crossed the landscape.

Hyattsville also changed. Apartment houses and bungalows surrounded the old Victorian homes, and Baltimore Avenue became cluttered with fast food outlets, car dealerships and plumbing supply stores.

By the end of World War II, many of the original owners had died or sold their homes because it was too hard to maintain them. The new homeowners were plumbers, car dealers, policemen and carpenters, many of whom needed the big houses because they had big families.

"A couple of families had 12 children," said Geary. "They were working two or three jobs and just couldn't keep up with the repairs."

In an attempt to keep heating costs down in their 12-room houses, some of the homeowners shoved insulation into the walls, which eventually rotted the wood. Other families pasted fake brick lining to the outside of their homes, covering the original wood and bricks. When the floors of the houses became worn, they simply painted them. And in apparent deference to the fashion of the times, some families painted the exposed wood of the fireplaces, windows and moldings.

As the neighborhood became somewhat rundown, speculators bought a few houses in the neighborhood and converted them into rooming houses.

"The speculators," said Geary, "were trying to get as many people as possible inside these big houses to get a return on their investment."

Carmelita and Ray Taylor purchased one of the rooming houses last year. They have spent all their free time since then restoring the house to its original condition as a one-family home.

When they moved into the house, each of the four bedrooms had sinks, the wood floors were painted, the living room and dining room had false ceilings and the walls were lined with sheetrock. Now, less than a year later, the Taylors have removed the sinks from the bedrooms, the sheetrock from the walls, and the false ceilings from the real ceilings. They have painted and papered and sanded, and they are quite proud of their new home.

"Something is special when you have to fix it up and work on it," said Carmelita. "Then it's really yours."