A trio of tall ships bore down on the Washington Navy Yard yesterday, flags waving and guns blazing, bringing with them a taste of a storied past when the 200-year-old facility on the Anacostia River was at the center of the nation's history.

It was an unusual sight at the Navy Yard, where the only boat of any size operating these days is a yacht seized from drug runners that now serves as the admirals' barge.

The yard, the oldest continuously operating federal facility in the nation, is trying to recapture a bit of the old glory, celebrating its bicentennial with a waterfront festival this weekend. There will be fireworks, bands and mock naval battles reenacting the War of 1812, when the commandant burned down the yard to keep it out of British hands.

More substantively, the Navy Yard is undergoing a $200 million expansion that will double its work force to more than 11,000 people. Officials have undertaken an equally ambitious effort to change its image as a run-down installation past its prime.

"What people will see will influence what they think," said Rear Adm. Christopher Weaver, commandant of the Naval District of Washington. "We're working with the city and community to change the popular impression."

As it stands, behind the white brick walls lining M Street in Southeast Washington, its grounds sprinkled with bronze cannons captured in the Barbary War and other ancient conflicts, the Navy Yard is strangely invisible. Employees slated to transfer to the yard from offices in Crystal City or Skyline view the move with reluctance.

Though it is only eight blocks from the Capitol, some consider it a world away. Last month, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) scorned a suggestion to build an Army museum there, declaring on the Senate floor that the Navy Yard is "well off the circuit that visitors travel when they come to Washington."

The yard is home to the Navy Museum, one of the nation's premier collections of naval artifacts. The free museum gets busloads of tourists every day, almost all from out of town. On a recent day, the log book at the museum's visitors desk was filled with entries from groups from across the country -- Iowa, Texas, New York, California -- but scarcely any from the Washington area.

"We get 400,000 visitors a year, but they all come from Iowa, I guess," said John J. Imparato Jr., the base's relocation coordinator.

For much of its history, the yard was one of the most important places not only in the District but in the country. Its site was chosen in 1799 by the Navy, in consultation with George Washington, as a place that would be safe from enemy coastal raids and near a ready supply of timber.

Thomas Jefferson visited the yard periodically during his presidency to monitor the construction of gunboats for the fledgling Navy.

In the years that followed, the Constellation, Constitution and Enterprise were among the many ships that sailed to the yard for repairs.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln worried that the Confederates would seize the critical installation. The famed 16-inch guns of the USS Missouri and other World War II-era battleships were built at the yard, which by then was primarily a gun factory.

Beyond its strategic importance, the Navy Yard was a gateway to the city. The Marquis de Lafayette was feted there on his farewell tour of the United States in 1824. After his trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh was carried home to the United States aboard a ship that landed at the Navy Yard, where a hysterical crowd surged past lines to greet the hero.

Within the lifetime of some Washingtonians, the Navy Yard burned with a luster and romance impossible for many today to imagine.

"It was a magical place when I was a kid," said Carl Cole, 56, who grew up near the Navy Yard and still lives nearby. "They had ships coming and going."

Both Cole's grandfathers worked at the yard, always one of the largest employers in Washington. "There's a huge, extended family of Navy Yard alumni in the region," Cole said.

The arrival of the missile age meant the gun factory work was growing obsolete by the late 1950s. The factory closed in 1962, and the yard became an administrative center filled with routine clerical work.

Boosters say the Pentagon's decision in the mid-1990s to expand the yard will prove a critical step in the rebirth of the surrounding waterfront, not only because of the influx of workers and money but also because of the addition of several prestigious commands that will heighten the yard's importance.

"The city is going to have to make some infrastructure improvements, but if it's done correctly, we're going to have a fabulous renaissance," said D.C. Council member Sharon Ambrose, a Democrat from Ward 6, which includes the yard.

Construction is underway for a new complex that will host the Naval Sea Systems Command and its 4,100 employees. Offices for the Navy's judge advocate general, or JAG, and the Naval Facilities Engineering Command have been created within the historic brick shell of a century-old building once used as a gun factory. The waterfront area, where the 1950s vintage USS Barry destroyer is permanently moored and open to visitors, is being spruced up.

The work is complicated by pollution from the better part of two centuries of industry. Toxic materials in the soil prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to place the 66-acre yard on its list of Superfund hazardous waste sites last year. But cleanup work is continuing side-by-side with construction, and the project is on schedule to be completed in 2001, Imparato said.

The bicentennial celebration, including the waterfront festival and an official commemoration in October, is meant to remind people that "we're here, and we're going to stay here another 200 years, and if there's any fence-mending to be done, now's the time," Weaver said yesterday aboard the admirals' barge, which sailed out to greet the tall ships as they paraded through the opened span of the South Capitol Street bridge.

Navy officials hold regular meetings to address concerns about parking, crime and shopping with the workers who will move to the yard. Workers will be safe and the transportation problems solved, officials said, but they admit the shopping may not match what the employees are used to in Northern Virginia.

"We don't have tanning booths and fingernail salons," Imparato said. "We'll give them heritage instead of frills."

CAPTION: Tall ships arrive for the weekend waterfront festival to celebrate the Washington Navy Yard's bicentennial.

CAPTION: The tall ship Dove docks near the 1950s-era destroyer USS Barry for the Navy Yard's bicentennial festival, which begins today. Events will include fireworks, bands and mock naval battles.