Down the Rabbit Hole…

Investigating Bentham Hall’s iconic Alice in Wonderland staircase

The “Alice Shower” is a familiar sight for students making their way to Bentham Hall’s second floor.

Swirls of murky green and blue. Grotesque frowns under restless eyes. A feeling of being watched. Almost every Bishop’s student has seen the well-known “Alice in Wonderland Staircase” on their walk up to Bentham Hall’s second floor. Part of the mural’s appeal derives from its mystery—why is it there? Why is it so unsettling? Who even painted it? 

At first glance, the staircase looks like something straight out of a surrealism exhibit, featuring a medley of storybook animals like Humpty Dumpty, the Mock Turtle, and the Cheshire Cat. Playing cards and multicolored fish encompass them. And ominously resting at the top is the well-known “Alice Shower,” rumored to be from Bishops’ boarding school era. 

Perhaps most enchanting is the mirrored quote at the stairhead, bearing the words, “You are entering The Rabbit Hole, Bring your whimsy with you. — S.W.A.T. 2006-2007”. Encircling those cursive letters are question marks, but when mirrored they appear backwards. 

Yet no description of the mural will truly answer the question, who painted it? The solution lies in Bentham Hall’s lengthy history. Built in 1912, it was designed by architect Irving Gill and dedicated to Bishop’s first headmistress, Anna Frances Bentham. According to Bishop’s historical highlights website, a second floor was added in 1930. 

A cramped office above Bentham’s porch became home to the S.W.A.T. (Student Writing Assistance Team), now called the Writing Center, in the early 2000s. The director, Mr. Steve Brown, had taken a sabbatical in 2007 and Mrs. Catherine Michaud, now director of the Writing Center, took over. “That year, [they] recruited about 40 S.W.A.T. tutors from the sophomore, juniors, and senior classes,” according to Mrs. Michaud. 

The new S.W.A.T. team was unsatisfied with the stairway–with its uncanny construction and coloring–leading to their office. Students seeking writing assistance didn’t enjoy the hike upwards, so they hardly visited. “It was such a weird hallway, we thought, we gotta do something with this,” Mrs. Michaud recalls. 

One of S.W.A.T.’s lead students, Max Kaisler (2007), came forward and designed an “Alice in Wonderland” concept. The main display would be—unsurprisingly—the Alice painting. Other major characters included a posh-looking frog sporting a Victorian wig and the White Rabbit in a plaid coat. 

Max also chose a quote from Alice in Wonderland to trail down the front steps. Mrs. Michaud and the other S.W.A.T. students believed it was strange; after all, the quote was so dark. It reads, “Fury said to a mouse, that he met in the house, ‘Let us both go to law: I will prosecute you – Come, I’ll take no denial; We must have a trial: For really this morning I’ve nothing to do.’ Said the mouse to the cur, ‘Such a trial, dear Sir, with no jury or judge, would be wasting our breath.’ ‘I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,’ Said cunning old Fury: ‘I’ll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death.'” This excerpt is known as The Mouse’s Tale. In the original typography, Lewis Carroll illustrates the words in a winding, tale-like shape, intending to convey a pun between “Tail” and “Tale”. Similarly, the words on the steps are arranged in a winding shape. 

Kaisler planned the entire staircase with a close family friend of hers: Mike Tauber, a Laguna Beach artist specializing in public murals. Although Tauber had experience painting for Southern California schools, he and Kaisler deemed it fitting for the S.W.A.T. students to finish the piece themselves.

The eerie staircase has earned its place as one of Bentham Hall’s most remarkable details. Mrs. Michaud looks back on 2007 and believes that the painting undoubtedly achieved its original purpose. “It make[s] people think and question, and it brings a sense of whimsy and maybe even a little danger into the stairwell!”