On a heat-seared District sidewalk yesterday, as bagpipes played and balloons burst, a certain kind of perseverance reaped its reward.
About 60 preservationists, capping a 15-year struggle, assembled at F and 15th streets NW to unveil a bronze plaque marking the site where Rhodes Tavern stood before its 1984 razing.
The plaque, affixed to the F Street side of the Metropolitan Square office complex, commemorates the three-story brick tavern, built in 1799, as the District's early city hall and the polling place for its first city council election. Yesterday was the 197th anniversary of that election.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) added his own fillip -- sending an aide to read a proclamation declaring yesterday "Rhodes Tavern Day."
Joseph N. Grano, who led the unsuccessful fight to save Rhodes Tavern and then worked to get the plaque, was there to savor the moment.
"I wish the building was here," said Grano, 53, dressed in a beige suit and a straw fedora and standing at a lectern borrowed from the nearby Hotel Washington. "But we have the plaque, and that's the acknowledgment of history. I hope people will learn from it."
Grano, president of the Rhodes Tavern-D.C. Heritage Society, heaped praise on developer Mortimer B. Zuckerman, whose Boston Properties owns Metropolitan Square.
"God bless you!" Grano said to an absent Zuckerman. "You did the right thing!"
Zuckerman's purchase of Metropolitan Square from developer Oliver T. Carr Jr. in 1998 opened the way for adding the plaque. Carr, who razed the building over the cries of history buffs -- and despite a referendum in which D.C. residents demanded that it be saved -- had refused to allow a plaque. He was angry because anti-demolition demonstrators used an offensive sign during a protest.
Among those present yesterday were several D.C. Council members, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and lots of tavern aficionados, including Sara Rimensnyder, who as a child helped collect pennies to save the building.
"It's hard for me to remember those days. But I remember well the almost 20 years of activism that I've seen to get this plaque up," she said. "Not many causes are fortunate enough to have that kind of persistence."
William A. Sommerfield, in the guise and tricornered hat of George Washington, arrived in a black carriage. A Mount Vernon employee, he helped unveil the plaque by ripping off its brown paper covering -- held in place with duct tape.
Greg O'Brien played bagpipes in honor of the Irish-born White House architect and onetime city council member James Hoban, a regular at the tavern in the early 1800s.
The plaque notes that the building also stood along the inaugural parade route of every president from Thomas Jefferson through Ronald Reagan.
Despite the gaiety, there were mixed emotions among those who still miss the building.
"I don't know if there's a victory," said Beverly Kligman. "To put a plaque up. . . . It's a meager win."
But Kay Eckles, a D.C. resident for 51 years, was satisfied, saying, "We won the moral victory."
CAPTION: William A. Sommerfield, dressed as George Washington, kisses the hand of former D.C. Council member Hilda H.M. Mason in front of the plaque.