After assessing the appropriateness of various architectural applications last week, the city's Historic Preservation Review Board pondered this: Should it designate as a historic site a pioneering public housing complex that showcased the talent of a gifted black architect, abated the misery of hundreds of Depression-era blacks and appeared on the board calendar because of the tenacity and pride of current residents?

Resoundingly, joyfully and unanimously, the board voted yes.

With that, some of the residents of Langston Terrace Dwellings, a 274-unit public housing complex on Benning Road NE, clapped, hugged and laughed jubilantly.

"I was on the edge of my seat," said Joline Bloxson, president of the Langston residents' council. "We had struggled so hard."

For almost five years, residents led by longtime tenant Johnny Glenn have sought the honor for Langston Terrace, the first federally sponsored public housing in Washington. The housing division of the Public Works Administration built it from 1935 to 1938 exclusively for blacks, who were suffering mightily from economic disaster.

The architect, Washingtonian Hilyard Robinson, received his graduate degree from Columbia University, then studied government housing throughout Europe. On slopes overlooking the Anacostia River at 21st, 24th, G and H streets NE, he dedicated the flats and town houses to black abolitionist John Mercer Langston, and included courtyards, sculpture and -- shockingly -- electric kitchens.

Government subsidized housing was a novelty at the time, and officials balked at this perceived luxury. So Robinson visited the power plant nearby on Benning Road and won the support of engineers. When Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes dedicated Langston in 1938, exultation ran through the air and electricity through the wires.

Robinson, who died in 1986, is the subject of a film documentary under production in the District.

"He wished so much to see this place become an historical landmark," said Glenn, who befriended the architect when he began pursuing historic designation.

According to architect Vincent DeForest, who has worked for the designation of black landmarks since he discovered their paucity before the nation's bicentennial, Langston's importance goes beyond its design or its designer.

"I don't know of any one project where so many pioneers -- black architects, artists and laborers, skilled and unskilled -- worked together," DeForest said.

"Langston evolved into a thriving community. By its first anniversary in May 1939, groups had formed in sewing, drama, photography and pottery," said Lucy Franklin, a historian with the city's Department of Housing and Community Development. "A cub scout troop had formed, as well as a credit union and a purchasing cooperative."

One of the first babies born to Langston residents was Dwight S. Cropp, now the District's director for intergovernmental relations. "You didn't feel that you were disadvantaged," said Cropp, who lived there from 1939 to 1946. "You felt really kind of privileged to live there."

Because of its library, nursery school and recreation center, Langston became "the hub of the community," attracting children of nearby homeowners and yielding "a very good mix," recalled Cropp, whose parents, both government clerks, eventually left and bought a house.

Although Langston earned enormous popularity in its early days, it has since seen the scourges often associated with public housing: litter, graffiti, battered apartments, boarded windows.

"The heat and hot water situation has been bad. It's been very, very troublesome," said Joel Polin, an attorney for Langston residents who have sued for repair of the system, which the city has promised to replace by this fall.

According to Glenn, who has lived at Langston for 14 years, residents attempting some of their own maintenance were thwarted. " . . . As soon as we would paint {hallways}, they would mark them again. So we had to stop."

Not even Langston's crowning jewel has been spared. Vandals have spray painted the imposing terra cotta frieze entitled "The Progress of the Negro Race," which shows migration from southern farms to northern factories, and emphasizes family life and education.

The historic designation imposes no specific upkeep requirements, but according to Franklin, the city's housing office intends to clean, re-landscape and repaint Langston, and with the help of stoneworking experts who have volunteered their time, restore the "Progress" frieze.

The sculpture overlooks a central courtyard that presents a striking view of the graceful curves of RFK Stadium and the D.C. Armory, and holds a playground, basketball courts, some disheveled sidewalks, cheerful gardens and graceful trees.

At last week's hearing, preservation board members expressed their hope that the city would nominate Langston Terrace Dwellings to the National Register of Historic Places.

Glenn and Bloxson believe that the long-stalled historic designation passed because D.C. Council member Harry Thomas (D-Ward 5) and the new director of public housing, Alphonso Jackson, have availed themselves to Langston tenants.

"It was gorgeous when I moved here," Bloxson said. "And it's going to be like that again."