Student adorns White House

By Samuel Charles

Christmas at the White House has a rich tradition, dating back to 1856 when President Franklin Pierce decorated the first Christmas tree in the presidential home. This year, one Columbia student was able to make his mark by helping decorate.

Alexander Schneider, 23, senior theater major, was one of 97 volunteers selected to help put up Christmas decorations for the White House’s annual

holiday celebration.

Schneider and thousands of other Americans mailed in letters applying to help prepare the White House for Christmas.

“In October 2009, I started sending in letters [describing] why I wanted to decorate and why it was my dream,” Schneider said.

He sent one letter every month to President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, the White House’s Chief Floral Designer Nancy Clarke and both senators from his native state, Minnesota, Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar.

He said the idea came to him after watching the “Christmas at the White House” television specials for more than a decade.

Schneider said his professors also helped him get to the White House.

Jacqueline Penrod, an associate professor in the Theater Department, is Schneider’s Set Design professor.

“[Penrod is] an inspiration with the amount of detail and time commitment she puts in,” Schneider said. “She always pushes you to the next level.”

To take advantage of this opportunity, Schneider took a week off from classes. The decorating process began immediately after Thanksgiving, on Nov. 26.

“He’s so organized,” Penrod said. “He’s someone who plans his time and thinks all of his work through.”

The 97 volunteers were managed by a designer from an outside company. The theme this year, as decided by the First Lady, is “Simple Gifts.” However, decorators were still given some artistic freedom, Schneider said.

Primarily, Schneider helped design the State Dining Room, which contains an 1869 portrait of President Abraham Lincoln.

“The designers [showed us] a sample on one of the trees,” Schneider said. “Even though there was a basic design and idea, we were able to use a lot of our own creativity and add in our own design work.”

According to Schneider, most of the other volunteers working on the decorations were much older than him, with the exception of a sophomore from Marquette University, the group comprised many homemakers and retirees, Schneider said.

“I probably brought the median age down about 20 or 30 years,” he said.

Despite the age gap, participants became close friends during their time together.

“We formed a family bond,” Schneider said. “It was really fun getting to know everyone from across the country.”

His grandmother was also invited to join him in Washington, D.C. In his letters to the various officials, Schneider always included “P.S. I’d love to surprise my grandmother with an invitation.” He received notice of his selection to help decorate last October. The message was addressed “Dear Alexander and Grandmother.”

“I love design in general, and I knew I wanted to do something hands-on and artistic,” he said. “A lot of the different departments, especially Art and Design, Theater and Film, geared me toward a good, thorough background.”

Schneider changed his major a few times during his Columbia career, initially studying in the Film and Video Department. The exposure to different curricula helped him appreciate different forms of design.

John Green, chair of the Theater Department, said the work Schneider did in Washington, D.C., helps show how many different styles fall into the category of Set Design.

“What Alexander is doing is creating public spectacle,” Green said. “Any formal Christmas decoration in a large, formal public space, which the White House is, represents a great tradition of creating public spectacle, which helps us broaden the whole idea of what [set] design is.”