Conrad Milster—Pratt's Chief Engineer for the last 47 years and the man behind the Institute's beloved (and recently-retired) New Year's Eve steam whistle salute—has been granted permission to maintain his rent-free campus housing as a condition of his employment, according to a formal statement from Pratt Institue President Thomas Schutte sent to students, staff, faculty and alumni on Thursday evening.
"I can only say that you people in the press scared the shit out of them," Milster told us last night. We reached him on his home landline after work. Classical music could be heard in the background. "I'm saying yes. I want to stay."
Had Milster decided to leave, the Institute would have helped him with "all aspects" of his relocation.
The 79-year-old technician was born and raised in Astoria, and paid his first visit to the Pratt steam plant in 1958. He has lived and worked on the Pratt campus since 1967, the year he and his late wife Phyllis got married. The same steam engines that Milster used in the '50s, with parts that date back to 1900, are still responsible for providing heat and hot water to the entire campus. He fabricates his own replacement parts from scratch.
"Despite recent press coverage of this issue, I want to personally reassure all members of the Pratt community that Conrad is not being evicted or asked to leave his current residence," Schutte wrote.
He did not, however, deny that Conrad was issued an eviction notice in September. "On-campus housing is a condition of Conrad's employment as Chief Engineer at the Institute," he wrote, "and we regret that the notices to residents that went out in September did not reflect this."
The Institute has confirmed that eviction is still "anticipated" for four other staff and faculty members currently living in historic townhouses on the art school's Brooklyn campus. Among them is writing program head Thad Ziolkowski who has lived on Willoughby Avenue abutting the campus's sculpture-dotted quad since 2001, with his wife and two young children.
Ziolkowski and the others have been promised one-on-one meetings with the administration to discuss the timing of their moves, originally scheduled for January 31st at the latest. Pratt says that it will "develop customized transition plans" to address tenants' "individual needs."
The townhouses in question are scheduled to be gutted and renovated into student housing in the coming year. Undergraduates will eventually pay $4,804 per semester for a single furnished room and common spaces, and six students will live in each house.
The administration says the conversion of 27 townhouses into dorms is a necessary response to increased enrollment at Pratt. The school's current enrollment is 4,556 students, 3,145 of whom are undergraduates, and the Institute reportedly has plans to break ground on a new 110-unit student residence tower at nearby 131 Emerson Place.
"Our houses represent 30 beds," Milster pointed out two weeks ago, referring to the five households facing eviction. "We've suddenly become a major stumbling block in institute recruiting?"
According to Milster, a member of the administration stopped by the steam room on Wednesday afternoon and "chatted briefly" with him. He said that there was no hard and fast agreement made, but that the administrator "intimated" that he could "probably be allowed to stay, so long as I continued to work at Pratt." He has a follow-up meeting scheduled for 10:00 Friday morning.
"If they've sent out a memo about that, I have to assume that it's official," he said.
Schutte's letter, e-mailed with the subject line "Townhouse Tenant Relocation Update," singled out Milster from the first sentence. The president went on to praise the longtime employee, concluding with a thank you directed at members of the Pratt community:
Thank you to the many alumni and students who have written to me on this issue. I truly appreciate your outpouring of support and concern. We all share enormous respect and admiration for Conrad and for his 47 years of dedication and continued generosity to the Institute. We look forward to Conrad's continued presence in the Pratt community for many years to come.
"I feel strongly for the four other families, and I don't know how they are going to make out, because they haven't had any meetings [with the administration] yet," Milster said. "I feel a little bit guilty, perhaps, that I've got special treatment that the others haven't got."
Milster said that he'd seen some of the comments about his situation on social media, particularly alumni stating that they would withdraw their donations if Milster was evicted.
"That is of course what wakes them [the administration] up," he said. "It all comes back to money."