Alexandria preservationists fought to the end to save the 96-year-old Victorian May House on the city's main thoroughfare, but early yesterday morning they lost to a demolition crew toting sledgehammers and pickaxes.

By 9 a.m., the house's ornate fanlight windows and dark red bricks were being smashed into oblivion despite the entreaties of the city's mayor and vice mayor.

"The decision has been made by our board and it's final," said Vernon Midgely, operations director for the Professional Insurance Agents, as he stood before a construction barrier adorned with spray-painted sentiments like "PIA Hates Old Town." Minutes earlier, Midgely had evicted from his board room a group of about a dozen preservationists who had entered the society's next-door offices with $2,000 to bargain for a six-month delay.

"This old house was a time bomb," Midgely said. "It would have taken a great deal of money to restore it. We bought it with the expectation that we'd tear it down, we paid for it, and now we're the bad guys."

Members of the Historic Alexandria Society have been trying for the past two weeks to negotiate an alternative to demolition, and were unimpressed by Midgely's reasoning. "You could say the same thing about Mount Vernon," scoffed Karl Von Lewinsky, a restorer of old houses.

Aided by a city ordinance that protects 100-year-old structures, Alexandria's preservationists generally have been successful in preserving large numbers of the city's vintage structures. The streets of the city's historic Old Town section along the Potomac River are lined with brick and clapboard homes that date back to the 18th century. But at the relatively tender age of 96 years, the May House was four years too young to qualify for protection, and plead though they might, Mayor Charles E. Beatley and citizens had no legal basis for stopping the demolition.

In a city full of historic homes, the dark, copper-adorned May House was a copy of a casino, now destroyed, designed by the firm of turn-of-the-century architect Stanford White, who was played by author Norman Mailer in the movie "Ragtime." The house's main architect was one of the leaders of the Beaux Arts revival in 19th century Washington.

Preservationists had suggested everything from restoring the house, reselling it or preserving its facade. Beatley wrote a letter and telephoned proposing the latter.

But beyond an initial meeting with one individual, insurance association Executive Director Trevor White declined to discuss alternatives, said preservationists, who castigated the association for everything from lack of patriotism to plain bad form. Matters were made worse because the mayor and others believe the association intends to use the lot as a parking lot, though White denied it.

"The house was quite avant garde in its day," said architectural historian William Seale. "It's the equivalent of the wild contemporaries you see in McLean."

All day yesterday, passersby stopped with cameras and snapped photos of the house. "They're going to tear this down?" asked resident Ray Wells. "They must be crazy. A good old building is like a good woman. You're not right in the head if you throw it away."