The roof is on, the drywall is up and in a few months, readers will be strolling into Alexandria's newest and most unlikely architectural wonder: the Charles E. Beatley Jr. Central Library.

After years of planning, the city's newest West End library has taken shape, beguiling passersby with its unusual shapes, towering peaks and whimsical flourishes, all staples of the building's designer and one of the country' best-known architects, Michael Graves.

"I have people coming up to me all the time saying, 'I can't believe that building,' " said Alexandria Library Director Patrick O'Brien. "It's something completely new and different for Alexandria."

At a price of $12.3 million, the state-of-the art facility and its wide-open spaces, vast children's wing and host of amenities--as high tech as personal data ports and as low tech as $100,000 in new books--are expected to draw thousands of readers after an expected opening at the end of November.

The building is named for one of Alexandria's most renowned mayors, Charles E. Beatley Jr., who served 15 years during some of the city's most dramatic evolution. Beatley served as mayor for two terms, the second of which ended in 1985. He is still a resident of the city's West End.

"This building is a work of art, and he has always loved art," said Alexandria City Council member Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D), who is also a member of the library board. "He really loves this building. . . . It's very appropriate the library would be named for him. He was the obvious choice."

Officials say every detail of the 60,200-square-foot facility, built on a seven-acre parcel at Duke and Pickett streets, was designed with library patrons in mind.

"We didn't want it to feel like it does at so many libraries where it seems like the walls are coming in on you," said O'Brien as he strolled recently through the building's shell and stopped to stare up into the peak of a 48-foot ceiling. "There's a soaring feeling here. It's an incredible space."

The children's area was devised with age-specific alcoves and has a sunlit room designed for storytelling and puppet shows that overlooks a central garden--all intended to entertain, teach and help keep rambunctious readers out of the library's more quiet spaces.

Planners say the children's wing will be furnished with colorful size-specific chairs and tables and filled with thousands of books.

Graves's design emphasizes an outdoor reading garden topped by a vine-covered trellis and the wooded area behind the library. Eventually, planners hope to use the courtyard to feature chamber music and other performances.

Designers tried hard to de-emphasize views of Duke Street, which bounds one side of the library and can been seen only through a few windows.

"We didn't want the public to know they were on Duke Street," O'Brien said. "Inside the building, you won't see traffic go by. We specifically designed it that way."

Unlike any other city library, the new central branch has 175 parking spaces and general seating for as many as 195 readers. Another feature is the library's 154-seat community room, which will be wired to broadcast public hearings on community cable.

The facility also will include a full service library for the blind, special speaking computer terminals with artificial speech and enlarged type capabilities, and data ports at 60 individual study carrels where visitors can plug in laptop computers.

A staff of about 80 will work in the building, mostly occupying the second-story offices and work areas that have been constructed with large picture windows to look down into the interior of the library.

While the library is scheduled to open around Thanksgiving, officials have planned the official dedication for New Year's Day.

The opening of the library also will spur a major reorganization of the existing library facilities. The Barrett Branch's 130,000-volume collection moves to the Beatley library, leaving space in Barrett for rare books and historical papers, currently kept in Lloyd House.

The library system then will close Lloyd House, the Burke library and an administrative center currently in rented space on Slaters Lane. The books housed in Burke will be moved to the Barrett Branch.

To help fund the new collection in the Beatley library, officials are soliciting tax-deductible donations and endowments, which allow donors to sponsor spaces in the library.

Unlike donations, endowments don't come cheap. The smallest endowment is $10,000, available to the donor who sponsors the library's small conference room.

Endowments top out at $100,000 for a chance to sponsor the Reference Reading Space, a clerestory area with double height ceilings and a round window.

Stepping gingerly over cables and slipping beside equipment that lifts workers to the ceiling, O'Brien gazed thoughtfully at the cavernous interior of the unfinished building and smiled.

"This place is really going to knock people's socks off," he said. "The public's going to love it. No question about it."

CAPTION: Alexandria's Charles E. Beatley Jr. Central Library, on Duke Street, is scheduled to open at the end of November. The $12.3 million building was designed by Michael Graves.

CAPTION: The new library will have high ceilings and a vast children's wing. The architecture emphasizes an outdoor reading garden--not the traffic on adjacent Duke Street.

CAPTION: "There's a soaring feeling here. It's an incredible space," said Alexandria Library Director Patrick O'Brien.