In the meantime, Tourje found a loose section in a patch on the exterior mural wall. He covered the rupture with protective tape, but a chunk of plaster came off, revealing bright red paint and shapes that precisely match the shoulder of a laborer in the mural.
That ragged spot remains the most "tantalizing" indication of buried treasure, Stavroudis said. But the conservators have removed paint in several tiny sections, called "reveals," offering hope of more to come. Bright blue tape covers their tests on the exterior; reveals in the kitchen dot a wall largely obscured by massive refrigerators.
"We are cautiously optimistic," said Rainer, whose team will prepare a report of their findings and make recommendations. "We do feel that something is there. We can see traces of the design through paint and plaster layers. We can see incisions that match the historic images. And we do see color, but some of it may have been scraped before the wall was repainted. We also see big patches of plaster on that upper exterior wall, and we have heard that large pieces of plaster fell off in an earthquake in the 1990s. But we can't know how much has sheeted off or what condition the mural is in until the whole thing is uncovered."
The wall has four zones that would require different treatments, Rainer said. Exterior paint would be removed mechanically, by scraping. Each of the three interior sections -- an attic above the drop ceiling, the upper painted wall and the lower tiled segment -- probably would call for a specific application of solvents. Devising these systems would be part of the challenge, she said.
But no campaign will be launched for a while -- if at all. "When we produce our report, we will advocate for not doing anything more until the building is secured and there is an owner who has a long-term preservation plan for the mural," Rainer said. "The next step would be to do larger tests in every area and find the best, most efficient way to remove the paint. But we want to do the project in a comprehensive way. We don't want to do any more testing on the exterior until it is protected by some sort of covering, and we don't want to work on any one area without knowing about the other areas."
The perpetually troubled conservation of "America Tropical" casts doubt on any attempt to restore "Street Meeting." Goldman tried to stir up interest in preserving the Olvera Street mural in 1969, but work didn't begin in earnest until 1987, when the Getty Conservation Institute joined forces with El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, the city department that administers the site. Progress has been fitful and the Getty has threatened to withdraw the balance of its $2.6-million commitment if the city fails to raise the estimated $1.4 million needed to complete the work. The Getty's deadline is July 1. If all goes well, the project will be finished at the end of 2006.
Despite the specter of fundraising, Tourje said that private ownership may be an advantage for the Chouinard project. Undaunted, he and his colleagues envision acquiring the old building as part of a complex that would include the school in South Pasadena and serve as a beacon of Southern California's artistic legacy.
"It's our idea of urban cultural development," he said. "The mural could potentially become an icon, as an identity factor for the larger surrounding community -- both Hispanic and Asian, due to Pastor Cho's contribution to the idea -- and the larger L.A. art community."
Inquiries should be addressed to Chouinard School of Art at (323) 982-1773 or firstname.lastname@example.org.