It used to be that hospitals in Washington threw open their doors and welcomed any patient who cared to come. But that was before hospital administrators realized that they were running businesses, not public utilities.

"Hmmmmmmm," these administrators said, as one. "If we don't attract customers, we're going to suffer. And lose money. And greatly displease our boards of directors. And maybe close."

So hospitals started to paint the walls more often. And keep a more watchful eye on the food. And smile even at patients they would rather have thrashed.

It's called marketing, folks, and it's a sign that the local hospital industry has become more competitive than the National Football League.

But how do you lure more patients than the other guys, especially when all of you are selling something that's essentially unhappy? Answer: You sell the daylights out of the one thing you offer that IS happy.

Maternity.

To lure incipient Moms and Dads who are worrying that they will never taste a decent meal again, hospitals all around the Beltway have begun to offer classy touches in their obstetric wards.

We are not talking mundane amenities like plump pillows and unlimited aspirin. We are talking the sort of glorious indulgences that outhyatt the Hyatt.

Here's a sampler of some of the frills that are available in local maternity wards, as assembled by reasearcher Amy Simmons:

GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL: Gourmet meals for both parents, including wine (as long as your doctor approves). For Dads: Haircuts, shampoos, manicures, pedicures and shaves while they wait.

HOWARD UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL: Gourmet meals by candlelight, a free bib for the newborn and stereo equipment available for borrowing.

COLUMBIA HOSPITAL FOR WOMEN MEDICAL CENTER: In Suite 401, the lap of luxury, there sits a foldout sofa for overnight guests, a microwave oven, a refrigerator and two private telephones. There's also the yuppie-est of touches -- a fold-out table for four, in case either parent wants to hold a business conference while waiting for Junior to be born. Gourmet entrees are available, served on fine china, accompanied by crystal stemware. As for the color scheme, Columbia's literature describes Suite 401 as "a restful study in mauve and blue."

SIBLEY MEMORIAL HOSPITAL: Sibley offers a Stork Club Menu, on which you won't find anything resembling the usual shoe-leather hospital fare. In the VIP Unit, you will receive a complimentary toiletries kit and a daily copy of The Washington Post.

GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL: GW offers postpartum rooms with private baths, candelight dinners and champagne.

ALEXANDRIA HOSPITAL: The birthing rooms here have hardwood floors. In the patient rooms, hospital equipment is hidden by "custom-made furniture and canopies." Mom and Dad also get a going-away gourmet dinner on their last night, complete with wine.

Of course, all that parents have to do after such wonderful treatment is to raise their child for the next 18 years. For that, they'll need more than mauve and blue walls.

But our hospitals may have an answer to that question, too. When Mom and Dad are tearing their hair, and can't wait to take a long weekend away from their precious darling, they may well decide to spend it in the same maternity ward where they had him. At least they know the food is good.

Note from the local history front:

"Please don't use my name," says a correspondent from Vienna. "My family, friends and coworkers may think I'm nuts.

" . . . . Every time I pass the Woodward & Lothrop warehouse on the right of Shirley Highway, just before it gets to the Beltway, I see in my mind:

"No Beltway yet. A 395 bridge going over a pretty deep gorge. And a small oceangoing freighter sitting in a creek down and off to the right, exactly where the Woodies warehouse now sits.

"So far, I've shared this vision only with my family. They, of course, think I've flipped. 'Sure, Dad, a freighter sitting at the intersection of 395 and the Beltway.'

"Can you dredge up anyone who may be able to confirm my sighting? Couldn't have been that long ago."

John Turley of Northeast tells of the 99-year-old man who sat for a photograph on his birthday.

"I sure hope I'll be taking your picture when you turn 100," the photographer said.

"Why not?" replied the subject. "You look perfectly healthy."