This week, Montpelier Cultural Arts Center celebrates 20 years of boosting local art and artists. But 23 years ago, its founders' hard-won victory almost went up in smoke.

In December 1976, about 70 members of the preservation group Friends of Montpelier Mansion were dressed in 18th-century costumes, sipping wine and feasting on a colonial-style dinner at the historic Laurel home.

It was the group's annual Christmas party and a celebration of sorts. After years of lobbying by the group, county officials had finally authorized money to transform an old barn next to the mansion into an arts center.

Then a bright orange blur outside the mansion's window caught the diners' eyes. They rushed outside and found the barn consumed by flames. The fire department later concluded that two young girls started the conflagration.

"All of a sudden, we looked out the window and the sky was all fiery," recalls Clara Walsh, one of the artists who attended the dinner.

"It was such a shock to us that we might not get the arts center that we worked so hard for."

But the coalition proved resilient. It regrouped and persuaded the state to help rebuild the barn from scratch.

The center was built with the same dimensions as the original barn, but with added niceties such as insulation, concrete flooring and huge windows that overlook the picturesque Montpelier estate. Groundbreaking for the building then known as the "art barn" took place in October 1979.

Since then, more than 80 artists have been in residence there. Participants are selected by a jury of art professionals and pay below-market rent for studio space.

This week, all former and current artists-in-residence have been invited to the barn for a reception. They also have been invited to submit works for a show that will run through the end of October. The festivities will help mark the anniversary of the center, which has been a boon to the arts in an area once better known for its livestock.

"There was no art in Laurel," recalls painter Irene Sylvester, who helped lobby for the center and attended the fateful dinner.

"It was a horse town."

Sylvester is seated at an easel and tinkering with an abstract watercolor at the 20-by-18 studio space she's occupied since the center opened. Many of those who set up shop at the art barn are already successful, she says, but having a studio adds legitimacy to an artist's work.

"Having a place to paint, you become a professional," Sylvester says. "An artist has to be very self-disciplined. No one is paying you, and you have to take responsibility for your work."

The center exhibits the work of resident artists, and their studio space is open to the public. Anyone can come in and watch them work, and the artists are always accessible to anyone seeking commissions, Sylvester notes.

The cut-rate rent enticed others, like Montgomery College ceramics instructor Gary Irby, who occupied a studio at the center from the year it opened until the early 1980s. "The price was right," Irby says. "The setting was ideal, out in the country in the middle of everything."

The setting is, indeed, idyllic. The barn rests on a rolling green lawn near elegant gardens adjacent to the Montpelier Mansion, an 18th-century Georgian house that was once inhabited by ambassadors and other lofty government officials. It is now registered as a National Historic Site and presided over by the Friends of Montpelier Mansion and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

The center has become a backdrop for the careers of artists like Roslyn Logsdon, who in her 20 years in residence has become a nationally renowned rug-hooker, the subject of a lengthy profile in a national arts magazine. Last year, she published a memoir about her life as an artist.

Logsdon, whose studio is in the barn's loft, is looking forward to seeing all the artists with whom she's shared space during the past two decades.

"It's going to be like a class reunion," Logsdon says. "We will see people we haven't seen in a long time and they will say, 'What have you been doing?' "

Nearly a quarter century after the original art barn went up in flames, some artists are quietly grateful for the conflagration. It may have delayed creating an arts haven in Laurel by a few years, but the working conditions turned out to be far superior.

"We would have been in horse stalls," Walsh says. "Not so good."

The "Resident Artists Reunion Show" runs through Oct. 29. A public reception for the artists takes place Friday from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Montpelier Cultural Arts Center, 12826 Laurel-Bowie Rd., Laurel. Admission is free. Call 301-953-1993.

CAPTION: Irene Sylvester, above and at left, works on a watercolor at the Montpelier Cultural Arts Center. She helped lobby for the center and has had a studio there since it opened 20 years ago. "Having a place to paint, you become a professional," she says.