The American Red Cross is planning to move its national headquarters to Fairfax County from a cluster of landmark buildings near the Ellipse in downtown Washington.

The move to the American Automobile Association's former headquarters in Fairfax is intended to overcome cramped working conditions in the deteriorating old buildings and a shortage of parking downtown, which have made it difficult for the Red Cross to draw volunteer workers to its offices, said John D. Campbell, Red Cross vice president for finance.

"We have neither the adequate space nor parking to recruit effectively," Campbell said.

The move will bring together about 1,000 Red Cross staff members now working in the downtown buildings on 17th, 18th and E streets NW and several other Washington area locations.

The Red Cross's eastern operations headquarters and its staff of about 350 would join the national headquarters staff from offices at 615 N. Saint Asaph St. in Alexandria, where parking also has been a problem, Campbell said. The Alexandria office and a Baileys Crossroads building will be sold, he said.

The organization will retain control of the three downtown buildings, which will undergo about $4.5 million in renovations, Red Cross officials said. The federal government owns the buildings and allows the Red Cross to use them free of charge, although the Red Cross is responsible for their maintenance. Activities of the nonprofit, humanitarian organization include disaster relief, blood collection and educational programs on health and safety.

The Red Cross has occupied the oldest of the buildings -- the monumental white marble structure on 17th Street near the headquarters of the Organization of American States and the Daughters of the American Revolution -- since it was built in 1917. The other two buildings date to the 1930s.

A small number of Red Cross officials will stay in the buildings, and a museum of Red Cross memorabilia may be created in one of them, Red Cross officials said. Two of the buildings are national historic landmarks.

The organization's board of governors last week approved a contract to buy the former headquarters of the American Automobile Association in Fairfax from the Oliver Carr Co. for $24.2 million. The Red Cross is scheduled to complete the purchase in September, using tax-exempt bonds, and occupy the 275,000-square-foot building a year later. It has until June 8 to withdraw from the deal without penalty.

The Red Cross considered buying another building in the District but found that option too costly, Campbell said.

The national headquarters relocation was not related to the recent Red Cross decision to move the management of its regional blood operation from Washington to Baltimore and lay off 305 employees, officials said.

The Fairfax building, near the junction of the Capital Beltway and Route 50 at 8110 Gatehouse Rd., has been vacant since the AAA moved to Orlando, Fla., last year. Carr, which developed the building for the AAA in 1974, recently took title to it and 23 acres of mostly wooded land in a tax-free swap with the motorists club. Carr built the AAA an office building in Orlando and took the Fairfax property as payment.

The development firm said it plans to build a hotel and four more office buildings there.