Eckington, an area of Northeast Washington that was once solely the province of burly warehousemen and railroad workers, is becoming the domain of business-suited office workers. The eastward migration of firms seeking cheaper office space is spreading to this former warehouse area astride the B&O railroad tracks near Florida and New York avenues.

A District government agency, Wilkes and Plumley Development Corp., John G. Webster Co. and Control Data Corp. are examples of groups that have moved to or plan to relocate in the Eckington area. One of the most unique uses of an old warehouse is being developed by the Wilkes and Plumley firm; intown storage and a design center.

The group owns the four-story masonry and concrete building at 175 R St. NE. It was originally a bakery for the Sanitary Grocery Co., Inc., then became a depot for Safeway and most recently was used by Fairfax County to store activated charcoal for use in its sewage treatment facilities.

Last month Wilkes and Plumley opened a mini-warehouse operation called The Storage Place on the first floor. Both cubicles and container storage are available. It is aimed at businesses and professionals as well as householders who need in-town storage space. The containers range from 16 to 28 square feet, and cubicles are about 45 to 200 square feet each. Rates begin at $8.50 a month for containers and at $35 a month for cubicles. Various sizes are available. Persons leasing space store their own possessions, lock up the space and take the only key. Access is now permitted seven days a week. Containers will be brought to the loading dock upon advance notice; they are also for sale. Direct access is available to cubicle storage.

The second floor of the former bakery and warehouse will be used for offices, or a part of the design center, with a "loft look." Sixteen to 18 units are planned by architect George Sexton, who now has offices in the building.

The 12-foot ceilings and open spaces are especially appealing to artists and other design professionals. Sexton, who designed the lighting for the King Tut exhibit and who is at work on galleries for Harvard's Fogg Museum and Williams College, has planned a glass wall with a set back and an iron rail at the corner of the building where his firm will move its offices and where Wilkes and Plumley will have office and conference space.

Charles C. "Sandy" Wilkes, an attorney and partner in the firm, says of the building and its future use, "I think adaptive use of obsolete structures is the most exciting, challenging kind of development opportunity. I also believe it is a socially responsible type of development; those are aspects that appeal to me. There are also significant tax benefits."

He says the firm has received inquiries from New York City, New Orleans, Natchez, Miss., and other cities interested in such a development team applying similar principles to buildings in their areas.

"We want people to feel a creative force there," said Wilkes.

The company has solid leasing commitments from an architectural firm, a newsletter publisher and an artist as well as the development firm. Construction on the office space is expected to begin at the end of January with occupancy set for April.

All of the offices will be self-contained; that is, each tenant will control his or her own heating and air conditioning. Some of the original brick flooring will be left, other areas will be carpeted. All will have the advantages of airy, open, well-lighted space. Owners estimate the space will rent for $6 to $10 a square foot.

The old bakery has a couple of unusual rooms -- a dough rising room with poured concrete walls and seven-foot ceilings and an enormous oven large enough for an office with a huge heavy metal door and guides for baking racks still attached to the walls. The building's fourth floor has a domed ceiling which rises to about 15 feet at the center. Such offbeat space is especially appealing to artists.

Partners in the firm are uncertain about how the third and fourth floors will be used.

"We have deliberately set up a competition to see which use of the building will prevail -- storage or design center. My best guess," said Wilkes, "is that we will have two floors of office space and one floor of self-storage plus basement storage. It is my feeling, and only my feeling, not that of my partners, that one floor will be used for painters, sculptors, and other visual artists."

Wilkes' partner, A. R. Skip Plumely, said he thinks the building should be the "center of the Washington cable television industry. The central city location is suitable for every aspect of cable television -- antenna location, manufacturing, offices."

He agrees, however, with his partners that it will be a "race" as to whether the building is used for more storage space or for offices. About 50 percent of the storage capacity currently available is already leased.

Architect George Sexton is designing a neon light sculpture that will incorporate the water tower on the roof. This is not to be confused with a neon advertising sign.

"We want people to look up, take notice of what is going on in the area," says Wilkes.

Without a doubt, the New York Avenue corridor is one of the prime development opportunities in the city.

The John G. Webster Co., a plumbing contracting firm, is moving its offices at the end of January from 627 F St. NW to a warehouse it owns at 1300 First St. NE. The company has been in downtown Washington for 70 years and decided to renovate its Eckington warehouse rather than move to the suburbs. It will occupy the first floor and lease the upper two floors. In addition to that property, owners bought another warehouse at 33 N St. NE which it will renovate and lease for offices next summer. A total of 80,000 square feet will be available in the two buildings.

Edward R. Webster of the plumbing company said that real estate leasing agents have shown a good deal of interest. He expects that costs "may be half the price of some downtown space." Rates have not yet been set.

The District government's Department of Housing and Community Development will move from several downtown locations to a newly renovated warehouse owned by the city at North Capitol and M Streets NE. The agency found itself caught between budget restraints and ever-increasing commercial leasing costs. By using space already owned by the city, officials hope to keep costs down.

The D.C. Office of Business and Economic Development has conducted a number of studies of the New York Avenue corridor.

Resources for economic development in the fiscal 1982 city budget would be used as leverage for federal funding and to stimulate private investment. For example, money from the public works investment fund might be used to construct sewer and water capacity necessary to attract businesses to the area. In turn, investment commitments by private businesses are the springboard to getting federal grants needed to make further improvements.