A group of grim-faced preservationists, their final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court denied, conceded yesterday that Rhodes Tavern is as close to being torn down as it ever has been in its memorable and recently beleaguered 185-year history.

"We've done everything we can," said Joseph N. Grano, the 39-year-old founder of the Citizens Committee to Save Historic Rhodes Tavern. He was busily preparing what he admitted was a futile last-minute appeal to D.C. Mayor Marion Barry to spare the building pending possible further court action.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger refused late yesterday to grant a stay of a Superior Court order that cleared the way for the District government to issue a demolition permit for the building, located at 15th and F streets NW.

Having exhausted a dizzying number of legal and political maneuvers, Grano said the bulldozers could now come at any time. The group has organized a 24-hour building "watch" so that "those who care" can be there when demolition begins.

An injunction against issuing a demolition permit was set to expire at midnight last night, and developer Oliver T. Carr should soon have the legal go-ahead to raze the building and complete Metropolitan Square, a $100 million office and retail complex.

An official of Carr's firm said the company would have no statement about its demolition plans until the D.C. Court of Appeals has officially lifted the injunction.

Grano, wounded and angry at the recent court decisions, sat in his Dupont Circle efficiency apartment yesterday with other members of the group and talked about the moment he fell in love with what some have called the ugliest historic building in Washington.

It was October 1977. Armed with "Washington on foot," Grano was touring the city and came upon a three-story, stucco-covered brick building, then being used as a newsstand and fruit shop.

"My first reaction was not that it was run-down, my first reaction was that it was unique and that there was nothing like it around," Grano recalled yesterday. "And the more I know about the building, the more I know it's important."

Like a man possessed, Grano quit his job as a government attorney five years ago this month and has since devoted all his energies to preserving the building and restoring it to a place of historic prominence in the nation's capital.

"I didn't pick it, it picked me," he said yesterday.

Largely through Grano's dogged efforts, an initiative designed to save the tavern was placed on the ballot last November and overwhelmingly approved by voters in all eight wards. But Carr, backed by the mayor, continued efforts to raze the building, and last month D.C. Superior Court Judge John F. Doyle ruled that the initiative was unconstitutional.

The preservationist group was unable to come up with the $100,000 bond the D.C. Court of Appeals required before hearing an appeal.

Those who want to save the building say Rhodes Tavern is the oldest commercial building in downtown Washington -- the only one that has been on the inaugural parade route since such parades began with Thomas Jefferson. It was a meeting place of Washington's first civic association, a polling place in the first city election in 1802, the birthplace of Riggs National Bank, the first home of the National Press Club and the place where British Rear Adm. George Cockburn ate a roast chicken dinner while watching his invading forces burn the White House in 1814.

Those opposed to preserving the tavern say that its historical significance is dubious and that most of the original structure was demolished in 1957. They call the structure an eyesore and warn that the costly delays Carr has encountered in developing the site will thwart efforts to revitalize downtown.

Grano said yesterday the court decisions had dealt a "body blow to the initiative process" in the District. He acknowledged that some have called him "crazy" for his single-minded absorption with saving the building but said his efforts were no different than those made to restore Mount Vernon.

"The importance is not in what you see, it's in what you know happened there," said Grano, who has drawings showing how attractive the building could be if restored to its former condition life as a tavern.

If the building comes down, "I'll survive," he said. "We didn't fail, the system failed. I'll feel bad for Rhodes Tavern, but it's the courts that should feel bad." if it's torn down.

Josephine Butler, who heads the D.C. Statehood Party and is cochairwoman of the the Save Rhodes Tavern Initiative Committee, said the building needs to be preserved on its present site so people can see it and not "some plaque" saying it used to be there.

"People want to see their history, they want to be able to tell and show their children," she said. "They save their historic buildings in Europe, so why can't we?"