Fifty years ago, Clarendon was Arlington's downtown and the premier retail shopping district in Northern Virginia.

These days, torn awnings hang limply above some storefronts, and years of grime cover other buildings in the comfortable, but decaying, area on top of Metro's Orange Line in the 20 blocks between Arlington's bustling Rosslyn and Ballston hubs.

The question is whether anything in Clarendon is worth saving. The Arlington Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board thinks so and wants to designate two structures as "historic districts," saying the buildings symbolize Clarendon's commercial heyday.

Another county agency, however, wants to raze one of those buildings and replace it with a park. The interagency scrambling has caused the Arlington County Board to create a task force to study the question.

The underlying issue is one facing inner suburban neighborhoods in many parts of the Washington area. The debate about the historical value of earlier 20th century buildings parallels a controversy in Silver Spring over whether Art Deco buildings should be preserved in the face of redevelopment.

The Arlington buildings are the Kirby Garage, at 3237 Wilson Blvd., a pink and green car showroom built in 1937, and the Dan Kain Building at 3100 Washington Blvd, a two-story turreted structure built in 1945 that now houses a trophy store. The landmark review board praises both buildings for their curving Streamline Moderne architectural style. The garage is the building eyed as part of the proposed park.

There is no organized opposition to saving the buildings, and their owners have raised no objections to having their properties designated historic.

"We don't want to sell it to a developer," said Bingham Burner, who, with his wife Pearl, owns the Kirby Garage. "We've got all the money we need. We want it preserved."

Arlington resident Vivian F. Daniels has filed a pointed complaint with the county. "Clarendon is ugly," Daniels wrote in a letter to the Arlington County Board. "I worked for a time in the area and I haven't seen anything yet that shouldn't be torn down."

The argument over Clarendon turns on the definition of history and competing community values.

"There's a widespread perception that the only things worthy of preservation are Mount Vernon or Monticello," said James H. Charleton, a member of the landmark review board and a historian for the National Park Service.

"Even those buildings were in wretched condition at one time and were saved only because people made conscious decisions to save them," Charleton said. "Clarendon is central to the history of Arlington in this century. It was the major business district in the county, the heart of the county."

The county board has put off a vote on the two buildings until early next year, pending the task force report on historic designation. The task force was created partly to avoid future lapses of coordination between county departments and boards, Charleton said.

A 1975 county survey listed 35 Clarendon structures as historic. The Post Office and the Hurt Cleaners building, once the Clarendon Citizens Hall, have already been named landmarks. The landmarks panel would like to propose historic designation for other Clarendon buildings but is undecided on the number and when to make the proposals, Charleton said.

But even some supporters have qualms about elevating faded storefronts in Clarendon to honored historic status. Once a building is designated historic, exterior changes cannot be made without county permission and demolition cannot proceed unless the owner has tried for one year to sell the property to someone who will preserve it.

"Just because something survives doesn't mean it ought to be preserved," said Mathew H. Street, a Planning Commission member. "If it was not of much original value, why save it? It's really ersatz history.

"Let's face it, while Alexandria was an ongoing pre-Revolutionary town, Arlington was fields and farms. There's very little to preserve," said Street, who voted to confer historic status on the Dan Kain building but said he had made no decision on the Kirby Garage.

Historian Dean Allard agrees that Arlington has no areas in the same league as Georgetown or Old Town Alexandria, but he argues that this is precisely why preservation is needed.

"Arlington desperately needs a sense of identity, a sense of place," said Allard, a member of the landmarks board. "It's traditionally been a place people go through to get to the District."

From the 1920s through the end of World War II, Clarendon was the foremost retail shopping district in Northern Virginia. But postwar shopping malls decimated business and major retailers abandoned the area. Clarendon's only recent boost has come from the many Vietnamese businesses that lease storefronts along Wilson Boulevard, giving it an international flavor.

Because of Clarendon's location atop the Metro Orange Line, it is generally acknowledged that redevelopment is inevitable, a fact that adds a sense of urgency to discussions about preservation.

"No one on the {landmarks} board is proposing there be no development in Clarendon," Allard said. "The conseusus is, there should be a mix of old and new, preserving much of the facades" of the storefronts and allowing higher-rise buildings to be built behind, he said.

"How much better that would be than Crystal City, which I think is a catastrophe from an esthetic point of view," he said.