The huge, handsome building situated next to Rice Park is the new Landmark Center. It is used to be the old Federal Courts Building, and for some years, it also housed a post office.

A great deal of justice has been done here resently.

The landmark Center, designed by the Boston architectural firm of Perry, Dean, Stahl & Rogers, in association with Windsor-Faricy of St. Paul, has turned out to be one of the best building of the 1970s - as well as of the 1890s.

All of this makes it a pertinent form of architectural progress.

Those steeply pitched roofs have been clad with terra cotta tiles, made with the long-lost molds used originally. The thick walls of brownish-pink St. Cloud granite have been cleaned, and seen against last season's snow and ice, the stone has the repose and resolve of a rose miraculously having made it through winter.

The arched windows, newly framed and glazed, the rounded turrets, and the soaring towers symbolize a time (thinking of what Evelyn Waugh once said) when there was no retreat from magnificence.

Economic constraints on one hand, rising cultural awareness and appreciation of architectural history of the other - are conspiring to inspire a retreat, but a retreat to magnificence. In the process, as here in St. Paul over the last seven years, such communities are finding that contemporary needs can be accommodated in older buildings, at costs that are competitive with those for brand-new buildings of comparable square footage.

In the bargain of such rebirths, bottom-line factors, more stringent than ever, are adhered to. So are ties that both bind us and free us - ties to our past, as people and as places.

This gloriously crafted structure, originally built to the design of Willoughby J. Edbrooke and James Knox Taylor (they worked for the Treasury Department back in the days when it supervised the design and construction of major federal facilities), is not seeing new days as a result of some cultural or civic elite dwelling on the past.

It was the future of St. Paul that impelled the city's leading citizenry to look for an economically feasible and culturally vibrant way to make something of the old Federal Courts Building, once the judges had pulled out.

The federal government itself was whistling a different tune about its architectural inventory by the early 1970s, and as the decade developed, it was to compose some stirring legislative themes to encourage local governments and groups to do upbeat things with historic structures, including federal ones that had been declared "surplus" by the General Services Administration (it supervises the design and construction of almost all federal facilities).

The Surplus Property Act amendment of 1972 was the stitch in time for St. Paul. The city had been fascinated by the possibilities for the old courthouse, but also frustrated by previous functional limitations and complex review procedures placed on it before the building had to be formally declared "surplus," listed on the National Register of Historical Places, and be thoroughly studied for the merits of its functional and physical adaptations.

New uses now could include revenue-producing activities, along with an array of other community, cultural and educational ones. No longer was it required that detailed approval for every change be obtained from Washington.

But an important condition remained intact: The architectural integrity and distinction of such properties could not be diminished. Today, in fact, the spirit as well as the specifics of this condition have been thoroughly developed. Thus, direct federal funding of, or even indirect assistance to, new construction and development can be approved only if it is demonstrated that whatever new stuff is projected will not deter from the qualities of officially designated historic buildings, districts, objects or sites.

Preservation power was on its way generally. And so was the Landmark Center concept-the old Federal Courts Building being the first "surplus" property to be transferred under the act and the first one to be completed.

It is an interesting note about progress within the federal government itself, particularly the General Services Administration, that many such historic structures earmarked for transferal to various localities finally have been retained by the government for its own revitalization purposes-most dramatically, the old Post Office and Custom House in St. Louis.

With the pressures for space growing, along with the cost of new construction, the General Services Administration has decided, and rightly, that the notion of "surplus" is an illusion-that it really does need many of those buildings it was going to "give away."

Another factor-and note of caution, should one be thinking of such a plan-is that of the communities working out a transferal agreement, not many got their political, economic, organization and functional act together as skillfully as did the people in St. Paul. It is one thing for a group to imagine all the wonderful, lively things it might do with some splendid, spacious structure, but it is quite another to actually organize that imagining in a well-planned, workable fashion. CAPTION: Picture, Classic arches rim a corridor of Landmark. Christian Science Monitor