The Army has proposed construction of a $17 million visitors center and parking deck and a $35 million museum at the entrance of Arlington National Cemetery, a plan harshly criticized by some historic preservationists.

"We think the new facility will provide a very dignified entry point to Arlington Cemetery," Donald Evick, the manager of the project for the Army Corps of Engineers, said yesterday, noting that the new facilities would help "orient people to what the history and purpose of the cemetery is."

Representatives of an independent federal panel charged with overseeing historic preservation in the Washington area charge that the proposed center and parking deck would be a distraction and would obscure the vista of Washington from the cemetery entrance.

The plan has been reviewed, and praised, by other federal agencies, and construction could begin as early as this summer, officials said yesterday.

"Our concern is that there seems to be a progressive change in the whole intent, the purpose of Arlington Cemetery," said Thomas F. King, director of cultural resources preservation for the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. "We sort of wonder what's next. We may be piecemealing Arlington Cemetery into something it is not."

The proposed center, planned on 16 acres just inside the cemetery entrance, would replace the current facility, built as a temporary visitors center 18 years ago.

Congress already has appropriated $8 million for the visitors center and parking deck and has set aside the remaining $9 million in the fiscal 1987 budget.

The proposed museum would be built with private donations, Army officials said.

The Army's Evick said the plans, which must receive final approval from the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts, include a 35,000-square-foot tourist center and a 600-space open-air parking deck that would cover 6.5 acres of the total site, the various sections of which are owned by the Army or the National Park Service.

The proposals have won praise and preliminary approval from the National Park Service, the Commission of Fine Arts and the NCPC. The regional planning commission said the project would lead to a "greatly enhanced visitor's experience."

John Parsons, director for land use coordination for the National Park Service, which has given the Army preliminary permission to use its property, called the designs "first rate."

The tourist center would be a focal point for the nearly 10,000 persons who visit the 116-acre cemetery each day. Its construction will result in space for about 9,000 new graves on the site of the existing center and parking lot, Army officials said.

The Army says that the tourist center itself will combine contemporary and classical architecture in a building reaching a maximum height of 45 feet at a skylight in the central hall. Most of the building and its two wings would range from 20 to 25 feet high, officials said.

The three-level, open-air parking deck would recede into the ground in a terracing effect, the Army said.

Historic preservation council spokesman King said the council's staff is concerned that the top height of 45 feet is the equivalent of a four-story building and should be "greatly scaled down and redesigned so as not to compete with the cemetery as a major focus of attention."

King said the staff also objected to the design of the tourist center because it "will confuse people because it makes it look like the building was designed to be there in the first place as part of the architect's original design for what should be at Arlington Cemetery."

Army officials said they hoped to win final approval and begin the visitors center and parking deck this summer, and complete it within two years. Evick said construction of a privately funded Army Memorial Museum is probably several years away.

He said the Army, unlike the other military branches, has no national memorial or museum and hopes to raise the estimated $35 million it would cost to build a one- or two-story building and 250-car lot on an 8.5-acre tract south of the proposed visitors center. CAPTION: Picture/one: Army's plan for a visitors center and parking deck at entrance to Arlington National Cemetery would cost $17 million.