For decades, a sign at Wisconsin Avenue and East West Highway welcomed drivers to Bethesda, "Washington's Country Club Community."

Now, a few yards away, at Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road, bulldozers and cranes beckon developers instead of those out for lazy Sunday drives.

The "Madonna of the Trail" statue is back in its place outside the post office and the Hot Shoppes and Farm Women's Market are still around, but other landmarks of Bethesda's old commercial center, including a hardware store, a five and dime and a pharmacy, are gone.

For in recent years, the low-rise business strip along Wisconsin Avenue north and south of East West Highway has been transformed into a high-rise city, whose development was spurred by the advent of Metro.

But during May, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase of old will be celebrated, in "heritage" days organized by the staff of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Center, a lower county office for the Montgomery government. The idea is "to get people talking about our area, to get back that sense of community we know is there but has been subjected to a lot of changes," said center director Gail Nachman. Admission to most of the 48 events is free.

Among the activities planned are a parade Sunday, tours of historic homes, an open house at the Bethesda Naval Hospital and the unveiling of architectural plans for the hospital drawn up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, lectures and a sock hop.

Today there will be a concert at noon at the Elm Street Park at 47th and Elm streets and a plant and bake sale at the Farm Women's Market, 7155 Wisconsin Ave. "The Pirates of Penzance" will be presented tonight at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

Nachman said she thinks the programs, cosponsored by the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, will "give our community a chance to sit back and enjoy what we have here, changes and all."

Those changes stem from the transformation of the once pastoral suburb of Bethesda into a major development center.

No intersection serves as a better barometer of this commercial bonanza than Wisconsin Avenue and Old Georgetown Road, the heart of Bethesda and now the site of the Bethesda Metro station, the Wang building and the 12-story Hyatt Regency -- as well as the Hot Shoppes.

Nachman said she and the center's advisory board began talking about a heritage program last year after they recognized that one of the side effects of the development rush was "a bit of a lost sense of what was.

"I mean, you turn around and you can't even find your old dry cleaners or your shoe repair. Many times, you will start out and realize, if it's on Wisconsin Avenue, it may be an office building now, or a big empty lot waiting for an office building. I guess some people might feel displaced."

Nachman, a Bethesda resident for four years, described the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area as a solid community with active civic groups, and one that should be credited for adapting to a barrage of changes along its commercial strips, including rerouted streets, barricades and razed landmarks.

Said Bob Eastham, Chamber of Commerce president and owner of Eastham's Exxon Service Center, which has stood at Wisconsin Avenue and Leland Street since 1929: "We want to promote the boom going on now, but we want people to remember the old as well. People complain about the mess, but we're building a better place, and that takes time."

On May 18, as part of the heritage celebration, Israeli Ambassador Meir Rosenne will present County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist with a 145-pound rock from the Pool of Bethesda, located outside of Jerusalem and thought to have had healing powers in the days of King Solomon. Nachman said the rock will be displayed at county libraries this summer until a permanent display is arranged.

A calendar of events can be picked up at libraries in Chevy Chase and Bethesda. Information can also be obtained by calling the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Center at 986-4190.