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Alice In Wonderland Mural Discovered On SDSU Campus

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Hardy Tower is one of the oldest buildings on the campus of San Diego State University. It has a bell tower and its Spanish revival style architecture stands apart from newer campus construction.

Archeologists often have to be great detectives. A professor at San Diego State has used his detective skills to find hidden historic murals on the university’s campus. KPBS culture reporter Angela Carone says he’s discovered a new one, featuring a beloved character from children’s literature.

SDSU professor Seth Mallios has been on a mission to find all the hidden, undiscovered murals on the university's campus.

Seth Mallios spends a lot of time in Hardy Tower, searching for clues.

He’s looking for murals that used to cover the walls and ceilings throughout the building, which used to be home to the university library and art department. Many of the murals date back to the 1930s and 40s. Over the years, they’ve been painted over or lost to new construction.

Mallios, an archeologist and head of the anthropology department at SDSU, says he's been all over the campus. "I’ve crawled into every ceiling, under every building, I have found a couple of other murals. I’ve found sketches of murals."

Photo by Evelyn Kooperman

A low-res photo taken before the Alice in Wonderland mural was painted over in the 1980s.

On a tour through Hardy Tower, Mallios points to where he's found murals and where he suspects there are others. He reaches up and lifts a drop ceiling panel to show me his latest discovery. It's an incomplete sketch of a bare-chested Egyptian woman. Mallios grins. "There are so many mysteries in this building."

Mallios has already saved three historic murals, including two 1930s, WPA-era murals from Hardy Tower. The other was a mural outside of a campus music club. It was saved days before the building was demolished.

Photo by Evelyn Kooperman

Another photograph of the Alice in Wonderland mural taken by Evelyn Kooperman before her favorite mural was painted over in the 1980s.

People give him mural tips all the time. A couple of years ago, he’d heard rumors about an old Hardy Tower mural featuring the characters from the beloved children's book "Alice in Wonderland." But he wrote it off as only a rumor. "There have been numerous wild goose chases that haven’t panned out with anything," says Mallios.

But then came Evelyn Kooperman. She's a retired librarian and author of two books on San Diego trivia. When she was a little girl in the 1950s, her mother used to take her to see two murals tucked away in Hardy Tower. One featured the character of Odysseus. The other, was the "Alice in Wonderland" mural. "I just thought they were wonderful," says Kooperman. "They were big and bright and colorful. And I just loved them and every year I would say to my mother, 'I want to go see Alice! I want to go see Alice!'”

Kooperman told Mallios about the mural that meant so much to her. "Best of all, she had snapshots of it," says Mallios. "The murals were painted over after 1984 but she had these pictures."

The low-resolution photographs revealed a 6-foot mural surrounding a large window on a stairwell landing. It depicted Alice peering down the rabbit hole. She was surrounded by other characters from the book, including the Jaberrwocky and, of course, the white rabbit.

Eventually Mallios found what he suspected was the mural wall in a rarely used stairwell in Hardy Tower. It was painted a boring beige. But the paint was chipping, which revealed a colorful under layer. Special thermal imaging confirmed it. The Alice mural was still there.

Photo by Seth Mallios

A thermal imaging study confirmed that underneath the flat beige paint, the colorful Alice mural was still there.

Photo by Mary Jane Conlan

Albert J. Lewis painted the Alice in Wonderland mural when he was an art student at SDSU. He's now 88 years old and lives in San Diego with a caretaker.

Turns out it was painted by Albert J. Lewis in the 1940s. He studied art at SDSU on the G.I. Bill. Lewis is now 88, but still lives in San Diego with a caretaker. Mary Jane Conlan is Lewis’ daughter and lives in New York. She remembers how angry her father was when they painted over the mural in the '80s. Conlan told her father over the phone that his mural had finally been discovered. He was pleased. Conlan didn't realize how pleased until later, when he told his caretaker: "They found my rabbit!"

Conlan says the mural's discovery means the world to her father, who taught high school art for years. "He didn’t get a lot of recognition," says Conlan. "He sold a few paintings but not a lot and for something like this to happen at this point in his life, it seems like a minor miracle really."

Back in Hardy Tower, Mallios shows me the signs of water damage on the mural wall where blisters on the surface paint puff out almost an inch. The mural needs to be saved soon before the water leaks cause more damage. "I worry about rainstorms," Mallios explains. "Every time it rains, I worry about this mural."

Mallios is currently raising money to save the mural. He'll then hire a conservator who will gently peel the mural off the wall. The plan is to put it in the children’s literature section of the SDSU library by 2015, which marks the 150th anniversary of when Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" was first published.

KPBS' Claire Caraska and Maureen Cavanaugh contributed to this story.


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