For the past eight years the Zenith Square gallery in Northwest Washington has been an oasis for artists searching for inexpensive housing and studio space, as well as a showcase for new talent and artistic expression.

Recently, however, the operators of Zenith learned that the studios, which share space with the gallery, are in violation of city zoning regulations and that the artists may be forced to leave. The gallery is not affected.

City officials and Zenith agreed on a July 1 deadline for either closing the studios or obtaining a variance from the D.C. Board of Zoning Adjustment permitting them to operate.

Margery Goldberg, a wood sculptor, founded Zenith when two of her friends purchased an abandoned strip of row houses in 1978 in the 1400 block of Rhode Island Avenue NW between Scott and Logan circles.

The buildings, which once housed offices and dormitories for the Washington Bible School and the International School of Law, are honeycombed with small rooms and huge studios.

Goldberg said Zenith quickly became a haven for artists "who live hand to mouth," unable to pay high rents for studio space and apartments in the city.

The Zenith artists live together, sharing their meals, problems and creative influences. The gallery has thrived, drawing wide support and recognition for itself and the artists.

But last year, after a disgruntled artist tenant complained to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), Goldberg discovered that Zenith is located in an area zoned for high density apartment buildings.

Art galleries are permitted in that zone but studios are prohibited, according to city officials.

"They are in the wrong zone," said George Guidry of the DCRA's zoning division.

"There is a distinction the city makes between a gallery and a studio," Guidry added later.

Goldberg said, "We didn't know that we were not zoned legally to be here." She serves as gallery director, agent and den mother for the artists at Zenith.

"It's the mixed use that drives them up a tree," Goldberg said. "We live and work and show in the same place. It's very hard to find places that you can do all three in the District."

Many of the artists, whose creations range from 300-pound metal war masks to purple neon light sculptures, said the low rents at Zenith have made it easier for them to concentrate on their work.

Charles Colburn, a metalworker and one of Zenith's first tenants, said he discovered his artistic talents when he left his job as an "iron jerk" in Rockville, packed his suitcase and a steamer trunk and moved to Zenith.

For $600 a month, Colburn leases a 900-square-foot studio that is filled with massive metal-bending machinery and heaps of iron and steel he uses to make his sculptures. But Colburn's rent is high compared to the average rent of $200 to $300 a month for most Zenith tenants, whose art requires less space, Goldberg said.

The crunch for affordable studio space that led to the birth of Zenith has also affected other Washington artists. City officials and other arts groups said the cost of renting studios often drives struggling artists to the suburbs.

"What has happened is that development in the city has pushed rents up and the artists out," according to Lucenia Dunn, a spokeswoman for the DCRA.

Dunn said the city should consider reserving areas for artists to live and work, to ensure the survival of the Washington arts community and to attract new artists.

"We are an artsy town and we support the arts," she said. "We need to consider something like the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria to give artists a place to work. Artists need to live and work too."

Zenith also has other problems. Because of the zoning codes and numerous fire code violations DCRA inspectors found there, the residents have been denied certificates of occupancy as required by the city, Guidry said.

The owners, JC Associates, plan to spend $125,000 to bring the buildings up to code, according to Goldberg and the owners' attorney.

But even if the repairs are completed and the certificates of occupancy granted, Zenith must take its case before the Board of Zoning Adjustment. Goldberg said Zenith has not yet filed an application for a variance.

Some of the artists at Zenith House have begun looking for new quarters, Goldberg said.

Goldberg said she hopes that the city will recognize that Zenith and other arts communities are an endangered species in need of protection.

"What I hope is going to happen is that the mayor is going to ask the zoning people to lighten up. They are forcing artists to be criminals."