John Nolen Jr., 88, director of the National Capital Planning Commission from 1951 to 1958, who had worked in area planning projects for more than a quarter of a century, died of cancer June 20 at his home in Bethesda.

Mr. Nolen moved here and began his career with what was then the National Park and Planning Commission in 1931. He held a variety of posts with the commission, including planning director, before becoming commission director in 1951.

During his years in office, the commission had wide powers in planning parkways, highways, parks, playgrounds and public buildings here. The powers were modified by Home Rule legislation. Mr. Nolen said the commission's job was bringing economy and order to the facilities of which the public had control.

"You can't build a house without having a plan and arranging for all the necessary plumbing, wiring and such. The same is true for a city. Someone must plan where public buildings should go and where highways serve the best purpose."

He championed the construction of the George Washington Memorial Parkway on both the Viriginia and Maryland sides of the Potomac. He advocated a modern Baltimore-Washington Parkway and oversaw the Southwest Redevelopment Plan for the District. He also supervised the preparation for early plans for what was to become the Metro subway system.

He also was involved in choosing the site for the Pentagon during World War II. Much of his work was devoted to conservation of area water resources and the improvement of the quality of life in our area.

In 1958, the commission asked Mr. Nolen to step down as director, saying that it would be in the interest of administrative and public relations changes. The commission asked Mr. Nolen to stay on as an associate director in charge of central planning, but he declined.

When he left the commission, The Post said in an editorial that Mr. Nolen "has in 27 years of service to the NCPC earned the reputation of a highly skilled, knowledgeable and uncompromising defender of sound planning principles as he has seen them."

Upon leaving the commission, he became an independent planning consultant until returning to government service in 1962. For the next six years, he was director of transportation planning with what became the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He had been a consultant since that time.

Mr. Nolen was born in Ardmore, Pa., and earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He then worked as a civil engineer in Boston, the Panama Canal Zone, Ohio and Florida. He came to Washington from Philadelphia, where he had a planning post with the Philadelphia tri-state regional planning board.

He was the recipient of a special 1956 award of the American Planning and Civic Association, was a fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and had served on the Maryland State Water Quality Advisory Commission. He had been a trustee of the Committee of the 100 since 1983 and was involved in restoration efforts in Georgetown and other areas near the C&O Canal. He was a member of the Columbia Historial Society.

His wife, the former Eleanor Weakley, died in 1940. His survivors include a son, John Christopher Nolen of Bethesda; a brother, Ted, of Venice, Fla.; a sister, Barbara Nolen Strong of Morris, Conn.; three grandchildren, and a great-grandchild.