The city has agreed to give local landmark status to the facade and lobby of the art deco Senator Theater but not the rest of the old movie palace in Northeast, a ruling that has pleased the neighborhood but riled preservationists.

The ruling is a first for the city's historic Preservation Review Board, which has never before voted to designate only a portion of a building, a move some preservationists called a dangerous precedent rooted in a racially polarized debate.

"It contradicts everything we are trying to achieve," said Patricia Wilson, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League.

The 48-year-old theater on Minnesota Avenue NW is considered one of the best-preserved Art Deco theaters in the city and a relic from the days when people saw films in lush movie palaces.

But neighbors who opposed landmark status for the theater, led by Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner James Onley, said those grand days were never part of the heritage of the mostly black residents of the neighborhood. In the 1940s and early '50s, blacks weren't allowed to see movies in the theater.

"Most people {in the neighborhood} realize that the theater didn't have any history for the community," Onley said.

Enter a developer who wanted to tear down the theater and replace it with a strip shopping center with room for a nearby Giant Food supermarket to double in size. Onley said he has been trying to get someone to develop the site for a decade, and the proposal by developer David Burke won the resounding support of the ANC.

Burke was set to demolish the theater last November when Thorn Pozen, a 25-year-old writer from Northwest and a member of the Art Deco Society of Washington, interceded by asking the city to make the theater a landmark. He said he had the support of 400 residents of the neighborhood to turn the theater into a cultural arts center.

Scholars from as far away as Vermont and New York flew to Washington to argue that the theater was too historically important to destroy. But the Preservation Review Board ruled last week that although the lively metal-faced marquee and stainless steel ticket booth were worthy of landmark status, the auditorium "falls short of the motion picture palace ideal."

Pozen said saving just the facade and lobby is "like saving the smile on the 'Mona Lisa' and whitewashing the rest of the painting."

Art Deco Society President Richard Striner said the board ignored his society, the scholars and nearby residents who favored saving the theater. He said the board made it clear that the society didn't belong in the debate because its members are white and live in other parts of the Washington area.

Nancy Baird, the society's attorney, said most public buildings of the era discriminated against blacks. "If this is going to be the criteria of the way buildings get protection, I don't think that it will hold up to constitutional muster," she said.

Steven Raiche, chief of the D.C. Historic Preservation Division, said several residents testified that the theater was a monument to segregation, but the board made its call based on the theater's architecture and historic significance.

"The location of the building is irrelevant," he said. "It could have been in Ward 3 or Ward 7, and the decision would have been the same."

Raiche said the Art Deco Society members are raising the issue of race because they are angry they lost.

Burke said he plans to demolish the theater's 880-seat auditorium before December and turn the lobby into a drive-in bank. He said the "Senator Square" shopping center will be built behind it. The Art Deco Society has filed for a preliminary injunction to keep Burke from razing the auditorium. A hearing is set for Oct. 4.