Smiling faces from another era, dapper young men with slicked hair and red-lipped beauties with marcel waves, stared out from yellowed pictures on the wall like characters in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

The same faces, now etched with gentle lines and framed with white and thinning hair, filed into the ballroom of the Columbia Inn in Chevy Chase to reminisce, trade jokes and enjoy the company of classmates from 60 and 70 years ago.

That a joint reunion of the classes of 1920 and 1930 occurred at all is a tribute to friendships fostered at now-defunct Central High, the most elite white public school when Washington education was still segregated, a bastion of cultural and academic excellence that many said gave them the fondest memories of their lives.

Central High, these alumni boast, offered an intellectual and social life comparable to that of many colleges. Teens, many of whom became business and government leaders, practiced their Latin, honed short speeches in "The Four-Minute Club" and marched in spiffy cadet uniforms at the massive building at 13th and Clifton streets NW.

Amid a storm of protests, the site was turned into a black school in 1950 and renamed Cardozo High.

The school was built in 1915 to replace a much older building on O Street NW, and it was equipped with the ultimate: two gyms, a greenhouse, the city's only high school swimming pool and a football stadium for the Central Vikings.

"It was the finest high school in Washington," said Miriam Rothstein Feldman, a 1930 graduate.

Julia Sargent Campbell, who was secretary of the class of 1920, recalled the classical Greek statues in the hallways, an auditorium to rival a Broadway theater and windows that afforded a sweeping view of the city and its monuments.

"It was so beautiful, you can't imagine."

The District also was a kinder, gentler city back then, they said.

"It was sort of a southern, slower town in those days," said Feldman's husband, Irvin, former chairman of WETA-TV (Channel 26) and a 1930 Central graduate.

The school graduated students from the most affluent and prominent families, including J. Edgar Hoover, Helen Hayes and a host of military and business leaders. "All the embassy people . . . all the Cabinet people would send their kids there," said Sidney Mensh, class of 1930.

Central offered a dizzying number of activities: the school newspaper, the Bulletin; the Rifle Club; and numerous Greek societies. But highest in prestige was membership in the school's esteemed Central Cadets, a group akin to today's ROTC that held regular marching drills in smart, Prussian-style uniforms.

"Each company had their own armbands, and the girls would collect them," Miriam Feldman said. "The ones who had the most were the most popular."

This was the generation that danced the Charleston, that partied under Prohibition. The first class at the reunion graduated the year women won the right to vote; the other the spring after the devastating stock market crash. The day the class of 1930 graduated it was 103 degrees outside, according to The Washington Post, which cost 3 cents back then.

But is it just their fading memories or were teenagers really so much better behaved back then?

"In those days, when the teacher said jump, you jumped," Miriam Feldman said.

Alumni and spouses together numbered about 100, and they came to Saturday's reunion from as far away as California and Florida. And most still knew the words to "Central Will Shine Tonight."

Gazing at her classmates, Campbell waxed philosophical about her alma mater. "There was something mystical about that school that inspires such loyalty after all these years," she said.

Then, turning to Mensh, she added wistfully: "We really had a great time, didn't we?"