The Dupont Circle West neighborhood leans toward Levelor blinds, precocious children and, at Christmas time, only the most discreet white and pale yellow lights.

In the area near 21st and O streets NW, the renovated buildings feature awnings and small chandeliered foyers. On winter nights, the air is filled with the smell of wood smoke from all the fireplaces; on summer nights, the aroma may be barbecued swordfish. The smallest apartments, mere basement bunkers, go for a minimum of $700 a month.

But within this style-conscious neighborhood is an interesting holdout, perhaps the last untouched building on the block. At 1340 21st St., in a three-story, turn-of-the-century stone house, is the dormitory belonging to The Corcoran School of Art. It is a bit of unconventional college life plunked down in the midst of rampant gentrification.

Occasionally, a Grateful Dead poster with roses and a skull stares from a window in a lower dorm room. Once, a "Curb Your Dog" sign beamed from another. Sometimes, the muted beating of bongo drums can be heard through the open windows.

"Actually, I think we stick out like a sore thumb," laughed Madeline Falk, 21, a transfer student from New Milford, Conn. "We don't really meet our neighbors."

It was twilight on a recent evening. Several students gathered for a study break on the concrete porch of the house.

On the edge of the sidewalk, a man and a woman, both in crisp white shorts, crooned softly to their wire-haired terrier as the dog paused uncertainly.

In the street, an empty police cruiser signified the obvious: no mercy for people dumb enough to think they can get away with illegal parking. The ticket giver was making his rounds.

For the 23 arts-minded students who live in the Corcoran dormitory, the unique location is a bonus, they said. Not for them the traditional campus scenery of clock towers and wishing wells and statues of benevolent benefactors. And, while there are dogs aplenty in the neighborhood, these dogs are generally not the sort to go loping across dorm lawns catching Frisbees in their mouths.

"This is our house," said Molly Sindelar, 19, of Shaker Heights, Ohio. "It's not like a dorm where you live in your own room. You live in everybody's room. It's convenient, everything is close, and to tell you the truth, it's a very exciting area. The buildings are so beautiful.

"We all have friends from American University and Georgetown," she continued, "and on weekends, if we really want to be on a campus, we can visit them."

The house is the only dormitory operated by The Corcoran School, which shares a 19th century building at 17th Street and New York Avenue NW with The Corcoran Gallery of Art. The dormitory, a former apartment building, was bought by the school three years ago, said residence manager Nancy Totten, a Corcoran graduate who lives with her husband and 3-year-old daughter in an apartment on the top floor.

Opened in 1890, the Corcoran today has 225 full-time degree students and 60 faculty members. Because about 65 percent of the course work consists of studio art classes, most of the students are worried about finishing projects rather than cramming for exams as the term winds to a close.

But then, the porch always beckons on a nice spring evening.

On the sidewalk, a dark-haired woman jogged by, keeping step with a Russian wolfhound on a leash. A few late workers dragged home, their briefcases hanging limply at their sides, the early-morning spring in their step long gone. Glimpses of nearby apartments were visible through undrawn blinds: a strategically placed crystal lamp, built-in bookshelves, gourmet kitchens, a grand piano in an otherwise empty room.

In contrast, there's no denying the somewhat collegiate atmosphere inside the dormitory. A notice on the wall announced the next dormwide meeting. A pay telephone on the first floor has a chalkboard beside it for messages.

The students pay $2,000 to $3,000 per year, depending on the size of their accommodations, for efficiency apartments outfitted with small kitchens and private bathrooms.

A sign saying "Free South Africa" hung on the door of the first-floor apartment of Scott Reynolds and George Fox. The Reynolds-Fox quarters are part typical college dorm room (heaps of dirty clothes, mattresses without sheets, a photograph of Jimi Hendrix), part artistic expression.

A garland of men's ties knotted together was strung from the window to the ceiling. ("That's Scott's tie collection," said Fox, 18, of Fairfax. "He hasn't figured out how to tie them around his neck yet.") Shards of broken mirror formed a mosaic next to the door.

On the wall, among other artwork, was a painting of a shower stall, greenly black and menacing. ("My interpretation of a shower," explained Reynolds, 18, of Chicago.) Pennies were scattered over the floor.

"They're not worth anything," Reynolds said with a shrug. "They just clutter up my pockets."

Near the kitchen doorway, a giant heap of tangled electronic equipment, metal and wires, a hand mike from a radio, an old typewriter and a car grill awaited inspiration.

"Art's no fun anymore," said Fox with a grin, "now that you have to get graded on it.

"I like it here," he added. "I feel like I'm on my own. That means I'm always broke."