In 1981, after all the many legal and administrative obstacles to demolishing Rhodes Tavern appeared to have been finally cleared, James O. Gibson, then the city's top planning official, urged developer Oliver T. Carr to tear down the building immediately.

"My gut told me that the issue was going to re-arise in some form" unless Carr moved quickly, Gibson recalled recently. But Carr decided to hold off.

Now, Gibson's instincts appear prophetic as the persistent civic activists and preservationists who have embraced Rhodes Tavern have rescued the building from destruction again and again. In the process, they have blocked completion of a $100 million downtown office and retail complex and tied the hands of Carr, one of the city's most powerful and successful developers.

Next Tuesday, D.C. voters will decide on a ballot referendum, Initiative 11, that would make preservation of the 183-year-old, vacant, three-story structure at 15th and F streets NW the "public policy" of the District government. More importantly, the measure is aimed at putting maximum public pressure on Mayor Marion Barry and Carr to find a way to save the tavern.

Barry, who signed the petition putting the initiative on the ballot after his administration approved Carr's plans to demolish the tavern, declined last week to say how he plans to vote.

Passage of the initiative would not necessarily save the tavern from demolition. But as the result of a recent court ruling, which the city and Carr are appealing, the city is required--if the referendum passes--to appoint an advisory committee that would negotiate preservation of the tavern with Carr and explore other ways to save it before the city can attempt to issue a demolition permit, a process that could take up to a year.

Carr's project, called Metropolitan Square, is opposite the U.S. Treasury Building between 14th, 15th, F and G streets NW and is being built in two stages. The larger first phase, which includes about 650,000 square feet of office and retail space, is virtually finished. Construction of the second phase, which includes nearly 200,000 square feet of commercial space and which calls for demolition of the tavern, has been delayed pending a final decision on the tavern's fate.

Organized opposition to tavern supporters has emerged in the last two weeks with the formation of a committee composed of business and labor leaders.

Opponents of preserving the tavern argue that its historical significance is dubious, that most of the original structure was demolished in 1957, that the current structure is unsightly, that Carr has made concessions to the city and preservationists in developing other aspects of the project and that attempts to save the tavern are thwarting efforts to revitalize downtown Washington.

Supporters contend that the tavern is the oldest commercial building in downtown--the only building that has been on the inaugural parade route since such parades began with Thomas Jefferson--and that it served as the city's first unofficial town hall where tax collections, orphans and bankruptcy courts were held. They also note that it was a polling place in the first city election in 1802, the birthplace of the forerunners of the Riggs National Bank and the American Security Bank and the first home of the National Press Club.

"It's the birthplace of democracy in D.C.," said Minnie Woodson, a former Board of Education president and member from Ward 7 who is also treasurer of the "Save Historic Rhodes Tavern Initiative Committee." Woodson said the tavern is an important landmark for the history of the city government in contrast to the many historic buildings here connected to the federal government.

Joseph N. Grano Jr., who has led the six-year fight to save the tavern, said supporters recognize that the present building is rundown, but enough of the structure remains that in 1969 it was accepted as a historic building by the National Register of Historic Places.

"The events that took place in Rhodes Tavern make that building important," Grano said. "History is more important than bricks, mortar and wood."

Grano said supporters would like Carr to donate the building to a charitable organization, which would then raise the estimated $1 million it would take to restore it and turn it into an operating tavern that would serve as a tourist attraction and a source of jobs.

The initiative committee includes as honorary cochairmen City Council members Hilda Mason (Statehood-At large), Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) and as cochairmen Carol Currie, a former chairman of the Citizens Planning Coalition, Louis R. Perkins, chairman of the downtown area advisory neighborhood commission and Josephine Butler, a Statehood Party official.

Currie said that tavern supporters are not against Carr's project, they simply want him to redesign it to include the Rhodes.

Michael McGowan, an official for the Oliver T. Carr Co., said that it would be impractical to redesign the building since it is more than half finished and redesign would cause a delay of a year or more.

City officials and tavern supporters said Carr's decision to exclude the building from the project was based primarily on design reasons--that the tavern would be out of proportion to taller nearby buildings--rather than economic reasons.

The area's largest labor organization, the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, which has 95,000 members in the city, has come out against saving the tavern and is taking an active role in the "Committee to Promote Economic Development for the District," the anti-initiative group, according to Joslyn N. Williams, the labor council's president.

Williams, who is also treasurer of the anti-initiative committee, said building trades unions played a major role in getting the labor council to oppose the initiative because they felt construction jobs generated by Carr's office building far outweigh the tavern's historical value.

The anti-initiative committee is headed by Joyce Meyers Seigel, an assistant for business development to the president of McLachlen National Bank and a member of the Ward 3 Democratic Committee. Seigel, who also has been a political fund-raiser for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said that she knows Carr, but he is not involved with the committee. Seigel said she formed the committee because she fears that tavern efforts are damaging the city's economic growth.

"I think the Carr company has done everything it's supposed to do," Seigel said.

As part of a 1979 agreement he reached with the city and Don't Tear It Down, a preservation group here, Carr incorporated into his project the 19th century Beaux Arts facades of two other designated historic buildings on the site, the Keith-Albee Theater Building and the National Metropolitan Bank Building.

Gibson, who negotiated the deal on behalf of the city, said the agreement with Carr was a compromise reached after unsuccessful efforts by the city to raise the nearly $2 million needed to save Rhodes Tavern as well as both buildings' facades.

When faced with a choice, Gibson said, the city and Don't Tear It Down decided that the Keith-Albee and Metropolitan Bank buildings were more important to preserve than Rhodes Tavern.

Carr, meanwhile, continues to offer to give $100,000 towards relocating the tavern. Gibson said previous attempts by the city to find another site downtown were unsuccessful. Grano said tavern supporters oppose moving it because the historical significance of the present location would be lost.