trans-2-Carboxy-5,7-dichloro-4-amidotetrahydroquinolines, evolved from the lead 5,7-dichlorokynurenic acid, have been synthesized and tested for in vitro antagonist activity at the glycine site on the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor. Optimization of the 4-substituent has provided antagonists having nanomolar affinity, including the urea trans-2-carboxy-5,7-dichloro-4[[(phenylamino)carbonyl]amino]-1,2,3, 4-tetrahydroquinoline (35; IC50 = 7.4 nM vs [3H]glycine binding; Kb = 130 nM for block of NMDA responses in the rat cortical slice), which is one of the most potent NMDA antagonists yet found. The absolute stereochemical requirements for binding were found to be 2S,4R, showing that, in common with other glycine-site NMDA receptor ligands, the unnatural configuration at the alpha-amino acid center is required. The preferred conformation of the trans-2,4-disubstituted tetrahydroquinoline system, as shown by X-ray crystallography and 1H NMR studies, places the 2-carboxyl pseudoequatorial and the 4-substituent pseudoaxial. Modifications of the 4-amide show that bulky substituents are tolerated and reveal the critical importance for activity of correct positioning of the carbonyl group. The high affinity of trans-2-carboxy-5,7-dichloro-4-[1-(3-phenyl-2-oxoimidazolidinyl)]- 1,2,3,4-tetrahydroquinoline (55; IC50 = 6 nM) suggests that the Z,Z conformer of the phenyl urea moiety in 35 is recognized by the receptor. Molecular modeling studies show that the 4-carbonyl groups of the kynurenic acids, the tetrahydroquinolines, and related antagonists based on N-(chlorophenyl)glycine, can interact with a single putative H-bond donor on the receptor. The results allow the establishment of a three-dimensional pharmacophore of the glycine receptor antagonist site, incorporating a newly defined bulk tolerance/hydrophobic region.