Rising over the tree-lined banks of the Potomac River, Glen Echo Park's cluster of towered buildings has kept sentry over the decades on Chautauqua lectures, carousel rides and nights of carnival-style amusements.

But these days the buildings bear the signs of their age--ranging from 50 to 90 years--and the artists, craftsmen and performers who now inhabit them fear the park's highly acclaimed cultural education program may be doomed.

Nearly a quarter of a million people visit Glen Echo throughout the year, attending classes in ceramics, dance, painting, mime and woodworking or theater and music performances and folk festivals.

Two buildings have been closed in the past year and a half because of structural defects, and another is in jeopardy. As a result, three artists have lost studios and another has received notice that his contract will not be renewed after it expires this summer. One of the buildings that was closed, containing the expansive dressing rooms for the swimming pool, has been demolished, and studies estimate it would take $1.5 million to return other decaying structures to good condition. The park is unlikely to get the money soon enough to save them from closing.

Supporters of the arts progam that has evolved during the past 10 years say the National Park Service, which took over the property in the early 1970s, is neglecting its end of an agreement that allows artists to teach courses in exchange for free space for studios. The arrangement has transformed the old amusement park buildings by turning a barn into a woodshop and a game room into a stage, among other uses.

Park Service officials said they are not required by law to do anything other than maintain the park as part of the land along the Potomac River that Congress has ordered withheld from private development and to preserve two historical structures there: an early 1920s carousel and the late 1800s Chautauqua Tower.

They say they are willing to adapt the park to meet evolving public in jump terests but must ensure the facilities aren't tied up with extended programs.

Over the years, however, park officials have delayed approving a final site plan for Glen Echo, which they must have as a basis for requesting funds from the Department of Interior for restoring the buildings and for making improvements.

Dennis Piper, head of a team assigned to create one recent plan, which has not been acted on, said "slow death . . . is what's happening" at Glen Echo.

"The facilities were deteriorating faster than the Park Service was willing to pump money into them," Piper said. "The artists there have put in a lot of their own resources over the years, and they're getting tired of having no support, whether moral or financial. They're getting used to the idea that their buildings will be torn down and little by little . . . their contracts would be canceled."

When the Park Service took control of the property after the amusement park closed in 1969, several artists asked to use the buildings for studios. The first group, Adventure Theater, which produces plays for children, was given space in the Art Deco arcade building. More artists followed, getting renewable two- and three-year contracts for rent-free space in return for offering classes at reduced fees. Other artisans arranged part-time seminars and special activities in meeting spaces.

By the late 1970s, Glen Echo offered a full-fledged Creative Education Program administered by the Park Service, and included classes in sculpture, mime, photography, fabrics, framing and theater. The park also is home to a Chautauqua season each year, a summer-long schedule of weekend performances, dances, carousel rides and concerts in the spirit of the late 1800s Chautauqua movement, which brought culture and education to the common folk at rural meeting centers.

The Park Service shelved a 1975 site plan and never used the plan Piper's group produced in 1979. Piper said his proposal contained a $1 million package to renovate buildings and the former amusement park's antiquated utilities systems, and an alternative $7 million plan that included new buildings.

John F. Byrne, superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the divison of the Park Service that includes Glen Echo, acknowledges that "the place would die without the resident artists." But he believes past plans have not recognized the potential of the other activities that exist there now and that are possible in the future. He said the plans didn't include enough development for temporary classes and festivities that attract most people to Glen Echo.

Piper's plan, however, used a survey of 5,000 Glen Echo patrons that showed what they most preferred to see was more of the same combination of studio and festival activities. Fewer than 10 percent wanted more festival activities.

Byrne said the Park Service this year will complete another plan that will "set priorities." He said officials plan to "get rid of unsafe facilities" at Glen Echo over the next five years.

Glen Echo must compete for funds with more than 40 other parks in the Washington region, including Wolf Trap, the Kennedy Center, the National Visitors' Center and even the White House grounds, Byrne said.

Full-time instructors at the park said they fear that the Park Service's recent tendency to allow artists' contracts to run out and its reluctance to renovate buildings signals a phasing out of studio programs in favor of temporary activities.

"They haven't made up their minds whether this is an arts park or some kind of aberration they've inherited," said Allan B. Lefcowitz, founder and chairman of the Writer's Center at Glen Echo.

The owners of the old Glen Echo Amusement Park left behind historic structures and 1920s amusement buildings. Few wiring and plumbing plans existed.

Much of Glen Echo's yearly $250,000 budget has been spent on expensive repairs.

"The utilities system is a nightmare," said Audrey Calhoun, the Park Service's site director for Glen Echo. "We go to dig up sewer pipes and they aren't there. We find high-voltage lines under three and four feet of water."

She said as long as no long-range plan exists for Glen Echo, it is unlikely the Park Service could begin any comprehensive building and renovation plans.

In the meantime, resident artists and supporters of the studio programs complain, nature is making the decisions.

Last year, the Park Service completed a structural analysis of all the buildings at Glen Echo. Cost estimates for rebuilding and repairing most structures ran to more than $1.5 million. The survey also found safety hazards and structural defects that brought a new alarm to officials. With renovation plans hanging and funding for development in question, Park Service officials decided to close the two buildings and end the contracts of three artists with studios there.

In recent weeks, bulldozers have brought down the Crystal Pool, including a locker room that housed the Sculpture Resource Center, the site of what was believed to be the only bronze foundry in the Washington area. Studies in the 1970s urged renovation of the pool and locker room, but last year's inspection found that water leaking through rotten boards had damaged concrete and metal supports and the locker room area overhanging Canal Road was sagging.

Officials plan to fill in the pool and use the open area on top for future outdoor exhibits and demonstrations. Meanwhile, only one of the three sculptors who worked there was given space in another building.

Calhoun told Henry Barrow, head of Glen Echo Woodworks, that his three-year contract would not be renewed when it expires in August. Last year's survey recommended $140,000 in interior renovations on the Yellow Barn, site of Barrow's shop.

The park service has spent $340,000 on repairs and heating systems for the locker room and the barn in the past two years, according to Diane Kellogg, a Glen Echo ranger for 6 1/2 years. "And now they've knocked down one building and are planning to close the other."

Kellogg said that when the Park Service closed the arcade building last summer, it put a squeeze on the annual classes held in Glen Echo's multipurpose areas.

Jeffrey A. Kirk has run Glen Echo Pottery since 1975, headquartered in earthen-roofed huts called "yurts," where roller coaster rails once stood. He said the Park Service's reluctance to plan for building or repairing facilties has caused a mistrust among some artists.

He noted that the Park Service did not renew a contract for Consumer Interests, an auto repair program. Officials cited heating costs as the reason, but Kirk said the program did not run during the winter.

"I thought that set a precedent in that the Park Service realized how easy it would be to eliminate a program," Kirk said. "Rather than follow through on their end of the bargain of rehabilitating buildings for continuing education, they'd rather spend the money tearing the buildings down."

Kirk shares studio space with Barrow's woodworking operation in the Yellow Barn. They said they plan to propose to the Park Service to pay to bring the barn up to health and safety codes. In exchange, they want longer contracts for the studio, perhaps seven instead of three years.

"There's no way they can turn down our proposal," Barrow said. "If they do, then the handwriting is on the wall: They want to close down the program."

Lefcowitz of the Writers' Center made a similar offer in May. When the arcade roof disintegrated, he lost 1,000 square feet of classroom space. With 1,300 members, the Writers' Center needs more space, Lefcowitz said in a letter to Byrne, and Lefcowitz offered to build a new structure.

In a draft of a response to Lefcowitz, Byrne referred to the development plan for Glen Echo "presently in preparation." He said much of the park is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. For these reasons, "we cannot make a commitment to you at this time," he said.

"You have to protect the government's options for the future," Byrne said in an interview. "You can't lock up public facilities" for long-term, single uses.

Park officials said that, ironically, the historic designation would help preserve the buildings but the lack of funding would prevent the park service from making the structures usable.