CHICAGO, NOV. 27 -- This crass and brutally political city finally paused today to begin paying tribute to the memory of Mayor Harold Washington.

As thousands of mourners gathered for an outdoor, ecumenical memorial service in Daley Plaza, Washington's body was brought to the city-county building across the street, where it will lie in state for the next two days.

The open coffin was placed on a blue-draped bier, surrounded by white carnations in the rotunda of the cavernous building. An American flag, folded in a triangle, rested to the right of Washington's head.

The people of Chicago then began to pass by in the thousands, paying their respects to the city's first black mayor, who died of a heart attack Wednesday. First, came the big shots, the politicians, white and black; the lawyers; the business leaders, and the preachers. A new red carpet had been installed to walk on.

Then, came the ordinary people, many of them wiping tears from their eyes, slowing moving by, hour after hour, until midnight. "He was a symbol of unity for the city of Chicago," said Gregory Calloway, 52. "I loved the man."

"I feel like a very close relative has died," said Bonnie Walker, 32. "I didn't care how long I had to wait. I just had to see him."

It had taken two days since Washington died for the city officially to shed its first tear. Until this afternoon, most of the attention centered on who will succeed Washington, not on his sudden death at age 65.

Washington will be buried on Monday. And today, four days of mourning began in earnest.

"He was a politician in the best sense of the word, seeking the good of the city," said the Rev. George Riddick, of Operation PUSH, at the memorial service. "He was Augustinian in the breadth of his vision. He was Jeffersonian in his commitment to the values that transcend narrow sectarian interest.

"He was a man who in his own time became a legend, a political colossus," Riddick added, his voice bellowing across the huge, open air plaza, which contains a three-story Picasso sculpture and the official city Christmas tree. "Our task is to pick up the torch he passed," he said.

The Rev. Henri Stiens, representing the Episcopal Archdiocese of Chicago, put Washington's place in a more down-to-earth context. He said that, for decades, to work on a city crew in his neighborhood, one "had to be male and of a certain ethnic derivation."

But last spring, Stiens said, he encountered a city road crew on his street with "six whites, four blacks and two Hispanics, and who was in charge but a strong, beautiful black woman wearing a steel helmet. I stopped and said, 'This is a new day for Chicago. Harold Washington is at work.' "

The crowd, gathered in the chilly canyons of steel and concrete skyscrapers that make up downtown Chicago, cheered loudly.

Washington collapsed at his desk Wednesday and died 2 1/2 hours later, never having regained consciousness. The arm-twisting and maneuvering over who will succeed him began within the hour at a prayer service held in the city council chambers.

Even at today's services speakers talked about "unity" and prayed for "a city free from the politics of selfish gain" more than they praised Washington. The crowd waiting to view Washington's body grew so large that the services were cut short.

Alderman Danny Davis, a potential Washington successor, appeared on television, pressing his cause a few dozen yards away from Washington's coffin. Former mayor Jane Byrne waited in line outside the city-county building for more than an hour as television cameras panned the scene.

Meanwhile, Jesse L. Jackson, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, met with the two leading contenders for Washington's job, Aldermen Timothy Evans and Eugene Sawyer, at O'Hare International Airport after returning from a trip to the Mideast.

With Washington's death, Jackson is undisputedly the most popular black leader in the city. He said he intends to use his influence on the choosing of Washington's successor. "The leaders who met me at the airport shared a measure of trust in me, respect for my leadership," he said.

Jackson aides said he will endorse a mayoral candidate within the next few days. They insisted that Jackson himself has no interest in the job.

But supporters of Sawyer called on Jackson, who reportedly favors Evans, to stay out of the succession battle. "He should pray for us, and he should give us advice and counsel, but he shouldn't tell us who should be the mayor," said Alderman William Henry, a Sawyer supporter. "That should be left to us."

There were hints that Sawyer's black supporters would threaten not to back Jackson's presidential candidacy if Jackson endorses Evans.

The 50-member city council is to pick from its membership an acting mayor who will serve until the next municipal election in April 1989. The selection likely will take place shortly after Washington's funeral and burial on Monday.

Evans was Washington's floor leader in the city council and chairman of the finance committee. Washington's chief political aide, Jackie Grimshaw, was openly working in Evans' behalf this week.

Both Evans and Sawyer are longtime aldermen. But machine regulars, black and white, feel more comfortable with Sawyer, partially because they think he would be easier to defeat than Evans in 1989 after two years as acting mayor.

Black activists who formed the grass-roots movement that first elected Washington in 1983 fear that if neither Sawyer nor Evans can marshal the 26 votes needed to become acting mayor, the council might choose a white alderman. The leading white candidate is Alderman Richard Mell, who represents a white ethnic ward on the city's northwest side.

Until an acting mayor is elected, Alderman David Orr, a white liberal from the North Side, is serving as interim mayor.

The battle for acting mayor was so fluid that speculation continued that some current alderman might resign so that a high-profile Democrat, such as City Treasurer Cecil Partee or Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), could be appointed alderman and make a bid to become acting mayor.

Special correspondent Janice Kramer contributed to this report.