A design competition for Jimmy Carter's presidential library has left prominent Atlanta architects angry and bitter after Carter later favored the design of a Hawaii architect who didn't participate in the competition.

"We will select yours or one of the other Georgia architectural firms, and we can then go into much more detailed planning for the library," Carter wrote one firm on Jan. 15. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Washington Post. Similar letters went to three other Atlanta firms.

"We would not have entered had we not felt one of the four firms would be selected," said architect Stanley Daniels. "We've learned a bitter lesson." The firm spent about $75,000 in manpower and material on the project.

"I'm very disillusioned and disappointed in the way it was handled," said John Portman, a former Carter supporter and well-known architect whose towers of glass and steel have changed the face of cities from coast to coast. His firm was among four that submitted detailed plans. He declined further comment.

Former White House counsel Robert Lipschutz, a Carter library trustee, said that Carter never intended the competition to be a "formal selection procedure."

"It was not 'informal,' " one architect fumed. "There were dates, deadlines and presentations before what was, in effect, a jury."

Carter courted them, summoning several to his 17th-floor office in the Richard Russell Federal Building downtown to express his ideas for the complex that was to be a tribute to his presidency.

He gazed out the window, at the hillside where General Sherman once camped before torching the city, and said he saw it rising there, a "very impressive" building, but not "unduly ostentatious," said one architect who went to his office.

Carter did not elaborate, saying, "I don't want to inhibit your creativity," according to the architect. The firms got a 31-page booklet discussing library requirements, and Carter said he and his wife, Rosalynn, would decide quickly on the final design.

"We're talking four firms," the architect said Carter told him. "We know we'll be comfortable with any of the four." The firms, among the most respected in the South, are John Portman & Associates, Jova/Daniels/Busby, Heery International, and Finch, Alexander, Barnes, Rothschild & Paschal (FABRAP).

Carter wanted sketches in three weeks. Then came the letters, and on March 5, frenzied weeks and thousands of dollars later, the firms dragged elaborate drawings, slide shows and models before Carter and an audience that included his wife, his son Chip, Lipschutz, former attorney general Griffin B. Bell, lawyer Charles Kirbo, former energy chief Charles Duncan and aide Dan Lee.

At stake were not only handsome fees from a project some estimate could cost as much as $50 million, but also prestige. "It was a plum," one architect said.

Lipschutz said the architects had not been lured into the project. He said his telephone had been ringing off the hook from architects and developers hungry for a piece of the library action in these lean construction times. "No one twisted anybody's arm to participate," he said.

Weeks dragged on and there was no word of a winner. The architects got anxious. But Carter had a problem: he liked parts of each design, sources said, but he wasn't wild about any entire design. Meanwhile, he'd taken a liking to the sketches of another architect, Herbert Lawton of Honolulu.

"You wouldn't want us to pick something we didn't like, would you?" Carter aide Lee asked one architect.

Lee said Carter remains committed to use a Georgia design firm, insisting that no final decision has been made. But architects say he has had trouble finding a leading Atlanta firm willing to work on the Lawton design as a joint venture.

FABRAP broke off relations with Carter after working briefly with the Hawaii architect, concluding that it would be left with no serious design role, sources said.

"We are not involved in the project," said FABRAP President Henry Teague. "We'd never been selected. We competed and didn't get the job."

After Carter met him during a vacation in Hawaii, Lawton came up with sketches for the library: a three-part circular structure of segmented domes linked by water and fountains and described by one spurned architect as looking like "a large orange juice squeezer." Lawton has designed two Hyatt hotels, one on Waikiki Beach, another on Maui.

Lawton refused comment, referring inquiries to Carter aide Lee in Atlanta.

At a recent Washington reunion, Carter passed out numbered sketches of the design showing a three-part structure with a conference center, a "hall of presidents" and library.

The drawings were retrieved quickly, lest the sketches wander into print. Later, Carter pitched former aides for $5,000 donations for the library, asking them to raise an additional $10,000 in pledges each.

Some of the competing Atlanta architects read about the incident in the May 31 edition of Newsweek. They were still awaiting word on who won. Carter aide Lee promised an announcement about a winner in about a week.