University of Wisconsin Law School alumni may remember that there used to be an area of the building affectionately known as the Reality Checkpoint. This stairway to nowhere became a landmark for a generation of law students.  Today, the UW Law Library brings this unique piece of history back to the law school.

Photo of Reality Checkpoint from 1970sHaving outgrown the original 1893 brownstone, the UW Law School building underwent a series of renovations in the mid-20th century. The stairway, which was part of a 1959 library addition, was intended to attach to a faculty tower to be built in 1963. However, before it was completed, plans were revised to move the tower to the other side of the building so that it would be visible from the top of Bascom Hill, thus abandoning the stairway.

One day in 1976, the words Reality Checkpoint mysteriously appeared at the top of the stairs. Years later, former law students Grant Callow (’77) and Tony Varda (’76) claimed responsibility. Lamenting that “many people took law school too seriously,” the pair wrote the words to remind themselves and others “what was really important in their lives.”

Reality Checkpoint painting installed

The area was refurbished in 1991 with a painting that finally completed the stairway with a door labeled Reality Checkpoint, although only as an optical illusion. The work was commissioned by Professor Howard Erlanger who was in charge of “building enhancement.” The artist is unknown (signature illegible).

Photo of Reality Checkpoint on display 2023

When the building was renovated again in the mid-1990s, the stairway to nowhere was demolished and the Reality Checkpoint painting was removed. More than twenty-five years later, the painting was rediscovered in a storage room.

Today, the Law Library is proud to bring back this unique piece of Law School history by putting it on display in our library staff work area.