Lifted by yesterday's springlike weather, Washington frantically prepared for today's inauguration of Ronald Reagan as president, while following the moment-to-moment drama involving the U.S. hostages held in Iran.

The rhythmic sound of workers' hammers and shovels, racing to complete last-minute tasks for today's ceremonies, marked the minutes of the final countdown to Reagan's swearing-in ceremony on the west steps of the Capitol at noon.

Limousines stood idle but ready -- at times three and four deep -- in front of the city's most expensive downtown hotels, while massive traffic snarls clogged the streets.

Everywhere, people were scrambling -- for tickets to events, for media attention, to see political and Hollywood stars, to get from one end of the city to another.

Even Republican VIPs, including White House Counsel-designate Edwin Meese, former ambassador Anne Armstrong and Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, had trouble getting their tickets yesterday, causing one top inaugural committee aide to say, "[Inaugural cochairman] Charles Wick better not plan on ever working at the White House!"

And while much of official America, some in fur coats and designer fashions, prepared frantically to take in the best of the most expensive presidential inauguration ever, street derelicts sneaked through the police lines at Union Station to sample free beer, dry wines and gourmet food at the "Taste of America" exhibit.

For Reagan and his wife, Nancy, yesterday was one reception after another with conversation a mixture of happy chatter about the inaugural excitement and quiet apprehension about the hostages in Iran. Last night, the Reagans attended a two-hour entertainment Inaugural Gala at the Capital Centre.

Earlier, at a reception at the State Department for handicapped and senior citizens who had worked in the Republican campaign, Mrs. Reagan was surprised by several Hollywood stars -- including Jimmy Stewart; Virginia Mayo, who was in two movies with Ronald Reagan, and Ginger Rogers, who costarred in one movie with the president-elect.

The stars stayed for the entire one-hour reception, signing autographs. "You are one of the last persons I saw before I lost my sight," Eunice Fiorito, a blind Washington resident, told Rogers. "I remember distinctly seeing you dance."

At a reception for Vice President-elect George Bush at the Museum of History and Technology, about 2,000 peple waited for more than an hour in a line that stretched from the main entrance of the museum on Constitution Avenue all the way around 14th Street and back up Independence Avenue.

Outside the White House, carpenters installed bulletproof glass and finished detailed work on the giant blue-and-white reviewing stand from which Reagan will watch today's 2:15 p.m. parade.

At the Capitol, work crews scrubbed the gray wooden swearing-in platform and discussed ways to shelter Reagan if today's weather turns nasty.

While weathermen say temperatures will be in the 40s today, an afternoon rain is expected, possibly turning into snow -- a forecast that worries crews in charge of tonight's fireworks show at the Capitol.

"All we are asking for is no rain from noon to 2 o'clock," one Capitol Hill aide said good-naturedly. "Please, God. We Republicans don't get to do this very often, you know."

All along Pennsylvania Avenue, painters were dabbing coats of paint on bleachers where 26,000 spectators who paid $25 to $100 a seat will watch the parade.

"People are funny animals," said Bernard Moore, a GSA employe painting a pole outside the Treasury Building. Looking at the mobs of people crowding the streets and the long lines of limousines stalled in traffic yesterday, Moore shrugged his shoulders and paused, "I was born here," he said. "I can see everything I want on TV."

A few feet away from Moore, a crew was installing an antipigeon device that played a high-pitched noise, resembling a pigeon distress call. It is being used to keep the birds from roosting near the parade viewers. Its screech attracted a crowd of curious spectators, but no pigeons.

For volunteers at the inauguration ticket center at Union Station, today's final events will be welcomed. Problems at the center continued to make temperatures rise.

Some out-of-town guests had to wait for more than six hours yesterday to get tickets, and more than 100 others, who had paid $100 or more for tickets to last night's gala at Capital Centre, were told yesterday that the event had been overbooked and that no more tickets were available.

Tickets were also oversold for the nine inaugural balls, to the dismay of many who came to Union Station, only to be disappointed. "I called and made my reservation about the first week in December for two seats at the Kennedy Center ball," said Sam Messinger, an import-export executive. "I come here today, and they've never heard of me."

Tickets were in such demand that scapler were peddling $100 tickets for much more and finding a seller's market. "Just one more. All I need is just one more ticket for the gala," said Christa Bull, a Michigan college student who had paid $160 for a $100 seat at the gala.

Getting to today's festivities will be difficult, city officials say. The Metro subway will operate from 6:30 a.m. until midnight with trains scheduled every 10 to 12 minutes. Metrobuses will operate on a Saturday schedule.

A large section of downtown Washington, south of K Street and north of Independence Avenue, will be barred to automobile traffic and parking.

Even VIPs are being told they will have to ride buses from the swearing-in ceremony to the parade stand outside the White House.

The elegant style of Reagan's inauguration was a main topic at many coffee shops in Washington yesterday. Limousines seemed to be everywhere. Don Diley, part owner of Carey Limousines they have rented in affiliate offices in New York City, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

At 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, a silver Rolls-Royce was parked beside the Willard Hotel. In between bites of a fast-food-joint hamburger, the driver said his boss had ridden down from Scranton, Pa., rather than chance finding a suitable limousine to lease.

Officials at National and Dulles airports said an unusually high number of private jets have arrived. Usually about 100 small corporate and business jets are on the ground at National Airport, said David Hess, an official of the Federal Aviation Administration. Yesterday, there were 183 and Hess said many smaller aircraft were dropping off guests and then taking off for more.

Fur dealers, formal-wear renters and caterers also said their businesses are booming thanks to Reagan.

Jeff Ellis, an owner of Ridgewell's caterers, said he will have catered 56 large parties by tomorrow, serving more than 22,000 french pastries, marzipan triangles, swans, mocha and chocolate eclairs, and more than 400,000 hors d'oeuvres.

"There are ten times as many private parties this inaugural than last time. I've never seen anything like this," Ellis said.

"These people have really fine tastes," he said. "Rather than shrimp salad, they want the whole shrimp."