Armando Herreras stood on the scaffolding high above the Central Library floor, dipped a yellow sponge into a pail, squeezed out the excess water, and carefully brushed at the mural beside him.
Two years after arson fires tore through the historic main branch of the Los Angeles City Library, a team of restorers have begun to remove dirt, grime and smoke from the building's famous murals.
"It's very slow, meticulous work," said 23-year-old Herreras, a Los Angeles artist who works on the project with a team of eight from Los Angeles-based A. T. Heinsbergen & Co.
Again and again, he took his sponge from pail to mural, and mural to pail, concentrating on a tiny section of Spanish-tiled roof depicted in the "Fiesta at a Mission" mural. After several minutes the muddy reddish brown roof color reemerged as a light orange-red.
The florid mural of robed Indians, dancing Spanish ladies and somber priests was one of six in the library's history room, now bereft of books, with only dust caked on the empty shelves and tile floor. The murals were painted in 1928 by Albert Herter and meant to depict aspects of California history.
In the next room, other workers balanced themselves on scaffolding that stretched 70 feet high in the library rotunda. They were restoring the Dean Cornwell murals, showing hundreds of grand, larger-than-life figures busily discovering land, founding Los Angeles, pressing grapes for wine and digging up gold.
Much of the cleaning is accomplished by simply using water, said Gerry Heinsbergen, whose family's company specializes in restoring murals and decorative paintings characteristic of several historic buildings designed in the 1920s and 1930s. Family forebear Anthony Heinsbergen was a muralist who painted hundreds of opulent interiors and murals, though not in the library, during that period.
Before work begins, a great deal of research goes into planning the cleaning procedures, Heinsbergen said. In some areas of the rotunda, for example, they were using a chemical agent instead of water to dry-clean oils that had been painted directly onto concrete walls rather than on canvas. "If you use water here," he explained, "it'll draw acids out of the concrete."
After two months' work, colors on two of the cleaned rotunda murals were much lighter and brighter. "It's very different," Heinsbergen said with satisfaction. "Like day and night."
The 62-year-old library has been closed to the public since April, 1986, when the first of two arson fires damaged much of the library and its contents. A second arson fire took place in September, 1986. The structure is scheduled to undergo a $147.5-million restoration and expansion.
Library officials had considered waiting until construction was finished before working on the murals, conservator Rosamond Westmoreland, another restorer on the project, said. "But the fire had deposited so much grime and smoke, we felt it should be cleaned before they had plaster and construction dust added on as well."
After the restorers finish their work in April, the areas containing murals will be sealed off before construction starts, Heinsbergen noted, "so we won't have to go through this again."