Martin's, a Washington china and crystal firm that closed its store at White Flint Mall, remains in business at 1304 Wisconsin Ave. NW. A story in yesterday's editions indicated incorrectly that it was no longer in business.

In the torpid economic climate of the late 1950s, where others saw lush farmland and huge vacant lots Ted Lerner saw shopping centers.

"Instinct," said Lerner simply. "That's what most of my projects are based on."

White Flint, Tysons Corner. Wheaton Plaza, Landover Mall. All are products of Theodore Nathan Lerner's instinct.

And all have made him one of the biggest and richest developers in Washington, a man who with little notice and a pronounced distaste for publicity has built an empire conservatively valued at $500 million.

Lerner's personal wealth may be close to $200 million, knowledgeable associates say, enough to place him in the same league with the better-known developers Oliver T. Carr Jr., Dominic F. Antonelli and Giuseppe Cecchi.

But with the projects he has on the drawing boards, those same associates say the 55-year-old Lerner should emerge in the next five years as the undisputed king of Washington's commercial developers.

His drive toward that title became clear this spring when he made a rare public appearance in a Fairfax County courtroom to bid $35 million for the 117-acre Tysons II tract of land across from his Tysons Center mall.

It was the highest price ever bid for a piece of suburban Washington land.

Lerner bought the parcel on instinct. "I went in there not knowing where the money would come from," he said in one of the few interviews he has granted. Lerner won't say where he got the funds, but no one who has looked at the empire he has assembled in recent years doubts that Ted Lerner is a man who can raise sums of that magnitude with a single telephone call.

That empire takes the form of undeveloped land, apartments, office towers and shopping malls and stretches from Leesburg to Landover. Lerner now has planned or under construction more than 7 million square feet of office space -- the equivalent of three Empire State buildings.

Among his holdings: four regional shopping malls; 4,000 apartment units scattered throughout the area; and a coveted acre of land at Connecticut Avenue and L Street Northwest that former restaurateur Duke Zeibert calls "the best corner in Washington" where Lerner plans to erect Washington Square, an architecturally elaborate 12-story office building with retail shops.

Despite his power and wealth, Lerner, a District of Columbia native, remains something of an enigma even to his closest friends. "No one," says Harold (Buddy) Zoslow, an advertising executive who has known Lerner for 20 years, "knows him that well. He is a very private person."

Once a month, unannounced and unrecognized, he inspects his malls, a small tape recorder in his hand. Few details escape him. Tenants whose walls are smeared with fingerprints or whose tile floors are improperly laid receive curt letters of admonition.

An unassuming man with a receding hairline, Lerner looks more like a conservative, gray-suited accountant than a high-stakes gambler with one of the hottest hands in town.

But that is precisely what he is. By capturing Washington, one of the country's most properous regions, Lerner has, in the words of one competitor, "made a helluva marketplace out of his own back yard."

Associates say Lerner's empire and his personal fortune are products of his ferocious drive, considerable intelligence and, most of all, his legendary and unremitting toughness.

"I have great respect for Ted Lerner as an almost ruthless type of guy who walks over dead bodies to get what he wants," said Jerome Michael, a Bethesda shopping center consultant who has worked for him. "You won't find too many people who like him, partly because they are jealous and partly because he tends to treat people like, 'I come first.'"

Lerner strenuously disagrees. "I'm a pussycat," he said. In a recent interview in his Wheaton Plaza office, Lerner attributed his success not to ruthlessness but to his reliance on instinct.

It was, he says, instinct that told him 30 years ago to forgo a law practice for a career in real estate. Lerner was fresh out of George Washington University Law School and "real estate seemed to offer some good opportunities," said Lerner, who had sold houses to help pay his college tuition. "It was an instinctive reaction. I thought it was where my future should be."

It was instinct again, Lerner says, that told him in the early 1950s he could sell a subdivision of 300 brick homes in Wheaton that had sat empty and unsold for 18 months. He sold the entire Wheaton Woods subdivision in 10 days even though some of the houses had water and rats in the basements.

Several years later, Lerner says, instinct told him the "pile of dirt" at Georgia Avenue and University Boulevard was a good investment, although others were bailing out of a partnership. With the help of others, Lerner transformed the site into Wheaton Plaza, suburban Maryland's first regional shopping center.

Unlike some of his peers who inherited their fortunes, Lerner is a self-made man who flatly refuses to discuss his finances.

A deeply religious man, Lerner is the son of an Orthodox Jewish clothing salesman who emigrated to the U.S. from Palestine. His family had little money and Lerner says he used to walk to Washington Senators baseball games because he could not afford streetcar fare. Since then much has changed for Ted Lerner. Six years ago he tried unsuccessfully to buy the Baltimore Orioles and bring them to Washington.

"I haven't forgotten where I came from," said Lerner, seated behind a massive wooden desk devoid of papers, the green and brown plaid curtains in his dimly lit office drawn tightly to prevent intrusion by the scorching July sun. Echoes of the Fifth Street NW neighborhood -- once the center of the city's Jewish community -- where Lerner grew up are still discernible in his accent and diction.

Many say the fact Lerner came up the hard way is reflected in his business dealings.

"When you disagreed with him you had hell on your hands," said Washington lawyer H. Max Ammerman, who dissolved an 18-year old partnership with Lerner last May after a bitter court fight over the future of Tysons II. Ammerman said Lerner tried to convince him and the other partners that Tysons II was worth only $13 million, less than six months after offers for as much as $27 million were pouring in.

Joel N. Simon, attorney for the Lerner Corp. and a participant in the Tysons II negotiations, said the splintered partnership resulted from a misunderstanding. "The other partners were always afraid Ted was one step ahead of them. They always thought he had something up his sleeve," Simon said.

"Ted's a cold fish and money comes before everything," says a prominent Washington businessman who has dealt with Lerner and requested anonymity. "Ted provides the hardboiled, rough, tough, eat 'emj alive stuff. The problem is, if you don't like Ted, well, he's just about the only game in town."

Lerner, soft-spoken during an interview, says he is puzzled and hurt by such characterizations, which he strenuously disputes. "I try to be fair in all my dealings, I try to be objective," he said.

He is particularly troubled by claims that he is ruthless, but that characterization has dogged him almost from the beginning of his career. He proudly shows visitors a 20-year-old testimonial montage of press clippings and cartoons larded with praise that Giant Food Board Chairman Israel Cohen sent him. In the lower-righthand corner, one clipping describes Lerner as ruthless. Cohen underlined the word in red crayon.

"He's got such drive but I don't think he knows what drives him. I'll bet he's never even thought about it," said Stanley Rosensweig, a longtime friend of Lerner's who is also one of his business partners in Lewis and Thomas Saltz, an upper-crust clothing store bought by a Lerner partnership two years ago for $2.5 million.

"Ted thought Lewis and Thomas Saltz was the best store in Washington and he wanted it in White Flint," called Rosensweig. "The [previous owners] were not interested in expanding into malls so Ted said 'See if we can buy it.' [Lerner] would do anything to bring certain sotes" into his malls, Rosensweig said.

For a developer with assets and a track record like his, Lerner acknowledges, money is not a problem. The money men love him.

"He's a very fine customer," said William Yowell, executive vice president of American Security Bank, the city's second largest, which in the last decade has lent Lerner more than $100 million.

"Lights flash in Ted Lerner's mind in solving business problems when lights are only blinking in the minds of other shopping center developers," said Robert Blakeman, an assistant vice president of the Equtiable Life Assurance Society of the United States.

Lerner's partnerships with other developers have enabled him to compete successfully against giant corporations including insurance companies, pension funds and foreign investment firms who, with hundreds of millions of dollars of assets, have driven many smaller entrepreneurs out of the real estate business.

"Ted has an uncanny ability to think while he's negotiating," said Blakeman, whose firm lent Lerner $45 million in permanent financing for White Flint shopping center. "He can come up with an answer so quickly that is so bright and so illumianting. I think that's what makes him unique."

Lerner lives with his wife Annette in a white, brick home in Chevy Chase that is assessed at $297,000. Annette Lerner's oil paintings of flowers adorn the walls of his office.

Lerner met his wife when she was 17, at a dance at Washington's Coolidge High School. "She never put any pressure on me whatsoever when I was working 18- and 20-hour days," Lerner said of his wife, whom he counts among the major influences in his life. The couple has three grown children about whom Lerner is said to be particularly protective.

Rosenweig recalled that several years ago, when he and Lerner were locked in an important business discussion, Lerner jumped up, picked up a phone and called the control tower at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. He explained to Rosensweig that his daughter was flying into O'Hare and he wanted to check on the weather for the landing.

Several times each year Lerner jets to his second home in Palm Springs, Calif., a town house in the exclusive Rancho Mirage section. His home borders the golf course of The Springs, a country club whose members include former vice president Spiro T. Agnew.

On Saturday mornings when he is in Washington he often joins a regular pregame breakfast group of wealthy businessmen at the Woodmont Country Club, the area's most expensive, which has a $20,000 initiation fee.

"Ted doesn't talk much," says Rosenweig, one of the breakfast regulars, who sponsored Lerner for membership at Woodmont. Lerner spends most of his time listening to the others at the table. He eats only a bagel, which he hollows out, exchewing the cream cheese and lox, a holdover from a decade ago when he lost more than 30 pounds.

"Ted is useless at frivolous talk," Rosenweig says. "Everything he says in incisive. Ther's no fat on it."

At least once a month, Lerner leaves his Wheaton office where he presides over a staff of 35 -- among them his brother Lawrence, 48, one of his business partners, and 27-year-old son Mark -- and drives to each of his malls for his unannounced inspection tour.

Associates say Lerner has an almost compulsive attitude about the appearance of the stores in his malls. Five years ago at Tysons Corner he refused to extend a store's lease because, among other things, he did not like the color of the tile on the storefront or the way it was laid.

"Mr. Lerner is very unsympathetic to the retailer," said Edith Schubert, owner of White Flint's China Closet and a store called Martin's, which went out of business seveal years ago. Schubert said that three years ago, when she was having "an awful year" -- her mother, husband and business partner in Martin's died and she was having trouble meeting the rent there -- she repeatedly called Lerner to request a meeting.

"I pleaded with him and I'm not a pleader and all I got was a good swift kick in the teeth," said yschubert, who said Lerner refused to meet or talk to her on the phone. "It was as though he had personal vendetta. The one time I did hear from him I got a letter complaining about fingerprints on one column inside the China Closet," Schubert said.

"I normally don't meet with tenants," Lerner replied. "it's an established policy. It's an established policy. I think we conducted that [case] in the proper manner . . . we've always helped tenants in difficult times." Lerner declined to name tenants -- there are about 430 in his malls -- whom he has helped.

From the beginning of his career, Lerner has received substantial help from well-connected families. First there was the family of Isadore M. Gudelsky, the one-time Baltimore junk dealer who assembled a vast construction and real estate empire in the suburbs of Virginia and Maryland. It was Gudelsky who gave Lerner his entree into commercial real estate by bringing him into the Wheaton Plaza partnership and allowing him to purchase a 10 percent interest. (Lerner now owns 11 percent.) And it was Gudelsky who allowed Lerner to buy 25 percent of Tysons Corner shopping center and a quarter of the Tysons II tract.

After Gudelsky died, Lerner forged a partnership with Albert (Sonny) Abramson, president of Washington's Tower Construction. Lerner calls Abramson his closest friend and speaks of "the Lerner families and Abramson families" in terms reminiscent of a marriage of two European dynasties.

Their relationship has greatly enhanced Lernerhs clout in the development world and his ability to bankroll his projects. Abramson, who declined through his secretary to be interviewed, owns a 50 percent share in Lerner's last three major deals. He provided the land for Landover and White Flint malls and helped to assemble the ground for Washington Square at a price of $1,000 per square foot.

The Lerner name has also been joined with that of Melvin Lenkin, a prominent Washington builder. Three years ago Lerner's daughter, Judy. The two families are currently constructing an office building on First Street NW.

"It's far more important to pick the right partner in a real estate venture than to pick the right wife," said Lerner, who says he does not expect his daughtes, aged 24 and 25, to join the family business because "they're girls."

Unlike several of his peers in the local business community -- among them Oliver T. Carr and R. Robert Linowes -- Lerner shuns involvement in civic affairs. He is not a member of the Greater Washington Board of Trade or the city's builders' association.

"I'd like to see him more involved in the community and its problems," said Linowes, a former president of the Board of Trade whose law firm represents Lerner.

"Time has never really permitted me to get involved in the community," says Lerner, a registered Democrat who says he voted for Reagan but contributed to the congressional campaigns of suburban Maryland Democrats including Gladys Noon Spellman and Michael Barnes. Lerner says he also makes substantial annual contributions to various charities, among them Jewish organizations and the Boy Scouts.

Lerner says that Washington Square, where he expects to charge $35-per-square-foot rents, the highest in Washington, is his contribution to the city. "The marble skin of the building and the atriums, that will be our contribution to the development of the city," he says of the building designed by Chloethiel Woodard Smith, one of Washington's most prominent architects.

Between Washington Square, Tyson's II and a 16-acre tract zoned for office space called White Flint North, Lerner has enough projects on the drawing board to keep him busy until the year 2000. All of them are strategically located at Metro stops and other transporation hubs.

But local real estate experts say that building and leasing 7 million square feet of office space in a belt-tightening economy may not prove as easy as creating four successful shopping malls in the boom years os the 1960s and 1970s.

Lerner may also face additional crises in his surviving Wheaton Plaza and Tysons Corner partnerships with Ammerman and the Gudelsky families that involve hundreds of millions of dollars. "His partners are not happy with him," said Ammerman. "I don't know how long we can put up with this."

Yet in his quiet, deliberate way Lerner remains confident that the future will be as successful as the past. "I trust my instinct," he said. "We've had more winners than losers."