It was after his retirement that Howard Uphoff decided to become an artist--not a recreational dabber but a serious painter, one whose work might hang in galleries.

Nowadays, the gray-haired artist sometimes opens up a book and stares at a self-assured dandy smiling back at him from photographs taken on the eve of World War II.

The young man dressed nattily then, and his appearance included features that seemed liberally borrowed from the masculine icons of the '40s. His impeccably trimmed, Gable-like little brown mustache. That perfectly parted mane right out of Tom Dewey. His resplendent suit the color of vanilla ice cream, like Bogart's dinner jacket in "Casablanca." The outfit was what clothiers of the time called the Palm Beach suit--total cost $12.50, to go along with the dandy's $3 pair of snow-white shoes.

The 90-year-old Uphoff--born Valentine's Day, 1909--is looking back on the young Howard Uphoff, along with the old Washington that he roamed before settling down in a splendid lakefront home in pastoral 1950s Fairfax County.

Uphoff has owed his half-century of good fortune to the U.S. military, which brought him to Washington in 1940.

Construction began a year later on the Pentagon, and Uphoff remembers it for a time as a three-sided place. The institution felt as unformed to the Milwaukee native as his own life, which was changing at a frantic pace.

Having arrived in the capital as a Stanford-degreed, Los Angeles-trained psychologist and examination expert for the Civil Service Commission, he'd swiftly transferred into testing Army inductees, saw his salary mushroom to $3,200 a year, snared a share of a spacious apartment in Arlington Village at $65 a month, caroused the city as an available bachelor and found his wife, Jean.

The young couple embarked, in 1942, on a honeymoon with Uphoff's gasoline ration stamps to Ocean City, Md., 100 miles away, traveling along a lightly trafficked highway in Jean's spanking-new $600 two-door Chevy.

"Life seemed easy, and so much space," he said, sighing.

Not long after that, they moved, just over the District line, into a house in Prince George's County. "There were no crowds ever, no aggravation," he remembers. "The good old days."

Then, in 1953, they moved for the last time, into a new development in Fairfax County's idyllic Lake Barcroft, a subdivision where the roads had not yet been paved and the Uphoff's property extended right to the lakeshore.

"The lot and construction of the house cost us about $31,000 total then, which seemed like a lot at the time," he remembers, laughing. "We were just a couple of blocks off Columbia Pike, and only a few miles away from Baileys Crossroads. But this whole area was country then. Right across Columbia Pike there was a cattle farm. Paradise."

He had become technical director of the Marine Corps' personnel research branch, working out of the Navy Annex, near the Pentagon. Little Columbia Pike, a quiet two-lane highway, brought him nearly all the way to his office door. "Columbia Pike was a simple country road then," he remembers. "It took me just a half-hour in the morning and a half-hour coming home. Forget about rush-hour problems. There was no traffic. I got home early enough to have a life. I started growing azaleas. . . . And then, slowly, the traffic nightmares came. There was no plan."

He thinks history dictates that development is unstoppable. "A professor of mine at Stanford said that the world's biggest problem was overpopulation. And that was in 1930. Nothing's really changed. We will just develop new outlooks to adjust, I guess."

He worries whether confidence in key institutions has been irreparably broken. "I think people used to have more faith in government," he said. "No matter what anybody thought of Franklin Roosevelt, most people agreed that he showed us with things like Social Security that government could do some important things pretty effectively. People don't much believe now in anything."

He has believed in the possibilities of things since that day he decided to reinvent himself as an artist.

He went back to school, studied technique and counted on his vision to take him the rest of the way. These days, his watercolors and sketches hang in a local gallery.

"I think much of the challenge ahead is making sure people feel fulfilled in a time when money counts so much for status," he said. "I've been fortunate. It's hard with so many people these days acting like you've failed unless you get magical stock options and become a billionaire. That search for individualism will be a greater challenge. So vision and the arts will count for more."

CAPTION: Howard Uphoff worries Americans have lost faith in government. "People don't much believe now in anything," he says. Above, Uphoff as a Marine. The military brought him to Washington in 1940.