In the beginning at Baileys Crossroads, there was the elephant.

"Old Bet" was imported from England around 1810 by New Yorker Hachaliah Bailey, a dairy farmer-turned-showman whose descendants later found glory with a circus impresario named P.T. Barnum. Bailey toured the East Coast with Bet and, with the proceeds from his elephant show, bought land in Northern Virginia at the intersection of Leesburg and Columbia pikes, where he exhibited his prize pachyderm.

Julia Ward Howe came to the crossroads in 1861, along with Abraham Lincoln and 20,000 Washingtonians, to review 75,000 Union troops. The sight so moved Howe that she returned to the Willard Hotel and wrote the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

A century later, it is unlikely Howe or the elephant would recognize Baileys Crossroads.

Its asphalt cloverleaf unwinds into wide boulevards lined with flat-topped auto shops, bowling alleys and shopping malls. The bungalows and small apartment buildings around its intersections house an array of ethnic groups that would do justice to the United Nations.

In the midst of this humble chaos is Skyline City, a 100-acre office, apartment and condominium complex that rises out of its suburban surroundings like a spike on a cardiogram of a pulsing heart.

Its looming skyscrapers are home to more than 7,000 residents, making it about as populous as the city of Falls Church. Include the workers who commute to Skyline's offices, mall and health club, and it is bigger.

Skyline won notoriety early in construction in 1973 when an 80-foot-wide section of one of the skyscrapers collapsed, killing 14 workmen and injuring 34 others.

Following the collapse, critics accused the developer, the Charles E. Smith Co., of allowing shoddy workmanship. The firm was ordered to temporarily halt construction, and a subcontractor was fined $300 for improperly shoring freshly poured concrete. Today company officials refuse to discuss the incident. "We don't like to talk about it," says Smith executive Vince Turner.

Instead, he and others refer warmly to the "doughnut concept" of life at Skyline. Because food, clothing and entertainment are all available within walking distance, theoretically, residents can go for months without venturing into the outside world.

Perched on what once was a country airport at a crossroads whose rural character has all but evaporated, Skyline is thriving, symbolizing the Crossroads in transition.

"Baileys is a patchwork," says Fairfax County Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III, a Republican who represents the area. "Some of the best residential housing surrounded by some pretty crummy commercial and industrial land."

Potentially a strong political force, the Skyliners tend to steer clear of community affairs. Their most strenuous political involvement, says Fairfax County Board Chairman John F. Herrity, came a year or so ago when they successfully lobbied to exempt their condominiums from a county leaf collection tax that averaged $30 a condo unit.

"In transition," says Herrity, describes Baileys. Like Davis, he has difficulty describing the crossroads. "It's impossible to look at it from any one angle," Herrity says.

In fact, there are three communities at Baileys--the natives, who remember when cows ambled up Leesburg Pike; the immigrants; and the Skyliners. Each dimly aware of the others' existence, they are at once separated and entwined by a tangle of oil-stained highway.

Evelyn and Dodie Bailey are descendants of the elephant-owning patriarch. Still living within two miles of the crossroads in a house filled with family mementos, their benign disinterest in the thing on the horizon is typical of many longtime crossroads residents.

"Skyline?" asks Dodie, with genuine curiosity.

"Oh yes!" says Evelyn. "What's it like? Is it nice?"

Thomas Alward has been repairing cars in his respectably cluttered Crossroads garage for 50 years. For him, too, Skyline is little more than a concept on the horizon. "Don't get up there much," is about all Alward has to say about it.

The immigrants at Baileys seem to come from everywhere. "We've got countries you've never even heard of," says Supervisor Davis. They are the second largest immigrant community in Northern Virginia, after Arlington. Indochinese, Afghan, Turkish and Iranian families, as well as Czechs, Koreans, South Americans and Greeks sit in patient groups, filling the rows of chairs in the lobby of the county social services office. Alcoholism, drugs, child abuse and neglect plague them, according to county social services administrator Alma Cohn. "There isn't much friction between groups, but we see a lot of family pathology."

The local schools are filled with Pakistani, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Greek, South American and Turkish children. At nearby Glen Forest Elementary, are children from 33 countries, speaking 45 languages and dialects. On a recent day before summer recess an English teacher pulled two shy but giggling boys into the principal's office, reporting that "this one stuck his pencil in this one's arm." She had to scold them twice--first in Spanish, then in Urdu.

Petty larceny and breaking and entering have increased in recent years at Baileys. When asked about it, Davis agrees there's a problem and tells a joke: The philosopher Diogenes, holding a lamp aloft in Athens, was asked what he was looking for. "An honest man," Diogenes says. In Athens? "An honest man." And at Baileys Crossroads? "I'm looking for my lamp."

For the Skyliners, some of whom have paid as much as $200,000 for their condominiums, "security is a constant concern," says Skyline Plaza condominium association president Edward D. Cowell Jr.

"I was just out there at a meeting the other day," says Turner. "The buildings are very secure, but that's the number one concern out there."

Except for the curatorial staff and the Koreans who own the basement convenience stores, there are few immigrants at Skyline.

Cousins Mike Papagiannopoulis, 13, and George Papas, 15, come from Greek families, but they are children of prosperous restaurateurs. They have the Skyline basketball courts pretty much to themselves and say it isn't easy to put together a team. "Kids at school think we're rich because we live here. They come up and put out their hands and say, 'Hey, give us some money,' " says Papagiannopoulis. The elderly residents are "too suspicious . . . they always think you're up to something."

There will be no Metro stop at Baileys Crossroads, although Fairfax Board Chairman Herrity has called it the one spot in the county where Metro would have been most needed. So Skyliners rely on the bus or their cars, and life near the fast lanes isn't always easy. At rush hour, traffic on the drive that crosses the complex, connecting Seminary Road and Leesburg Pike, is so heavy that "some people use their cars just to get to the Safeway at the mall on the other side," says Cowell.

On the Skyliners' sleek island of affluence, independence is treasured even more than convenience. "I'm free here. I can do what I want, when I want," says William Benn, a diamond-ringed, deeply tanned pilot. He also is a member of the family that once owned the airport and still has a percentage of the Skyline complex. For Benn, Skyline is the next best thing to flying. "I hate grass, I'm allergic to bees," he said as he sat greeting neighbors in the central lobby of Skyline Towers. "Why would I want to be out mowing the lawn, when I can sit here, doing this?"

"You can be as social or as unsocial as you want here," says condo owner and retired airline employe Nancy Pearson. "It's all up to you. I hate the heat, and if I want to I can stay in my apartment, looking out my window, for days." And if nothing else, says Pearson, there are the tax advantages of a mortgage to think about. James L. Khare, 82, is a ruddy-faced Yankee who moved into the Skyline apartments seven years ago and took the doorman job to help pay his rent and pass the time. He patrols the front door most afternoons, often as not cradling a bag of birdseed in his white-gloved hands. "I know everybody, and they know me," says Khare. "I think I kinda keep the place personalized."

In many ways, however, life at Skyline is as closely proscribed as that of any New England village. A recent complaint in a condo newsletter berated residents of the opposite building for balconies of a "disgraceful condition of cleanliness . . . "We wonder," the letter concluded, "what helicopter crews must think when they see the outside balconies of both buildings."

Not that the Skyliners aren't devoted to their homes. "I just love it and there is no one who could make me leave," says a general's widow who lives on the 23rd floor at Skyline Towers. "When my husband, the general, was alive, we loved to sit out on the balcony and watch the world. At night," she says, pulling back the sheer curtains, "it looks just like Christmas."