Washington awoke 50 years ago today with a new occupant in the White House, who was to erase the capital's image as "a sleepy southern town" for all time. The larger story of Franklin D. Roosevelt's inauguration is well known. Little is remembered of how the nation's capital functioned during the inaugural period.

"Traffic is Snarled, Police are Lenient," said a headline in The Washington Post, noting that "the chauffeur of one governor's car from a New England state was told by a policeman that a red light meant stop in Washington as well as in his own state." The Post editorialized that same day that inaugural visitors "appreciate courteous treatment when they unwittingly violate traffic or other rules unknown to them."

Following a fatal ambulance-automobile crash at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, the District commissioners imposed a 30-mile-an-hour speed limit on ambulances and ordered a halt to the use of sirens "except in case of urgent necessity"--rules obviously repealed later.

Congress adjourned its regular session after "a hilarious House" voted to reject a $7.6 million federal payment, considered excessive, to help support the D.C. government in the 1934 fiscal year. (The 1983 payment is $361 million.)

Harry F. Byrd, 52, who had been considered a progressive governor of Virginia while serving from 1926 to 1930, took his seat in the U.S. Senate. He was appointed by Gov. John Garland Pollard to replace Sen. Claude A. Swanson, named to FDR's cabinet. (Byrd, later the epitome of conservatism, was to serve until 1965. His son succeeded him, leaving office last December.)

Times were tough. Jobs were scarce. Pay was low, but so were prices. Sanitary Grocery Co. and Piggly Wiggly Stores, which evolved through merger into today's Safeway, advertised coffee for 27 cents a pound, bread for 5 cents a loaf, a pound of frankfurters and half dozen rolls for 25 cents and prime rib roast at 18 cents a pound.

And Eastern Air Transport advertised hourly planes to New York, $20 for a round trip