Conrad Milster, Pratt's chief engineer for 58 years and the man responsible for the Institute's recently-retired New Year's Eve steam whistle salute, was removed from his post over the summer. Known for his handling of a century-old steam plant that provides heat and hot water to the entire campus, Milster now heads up maintenance and fire safety for Higgins Hall, the architecture building on campus.
"If they wanted to destroy me, they couldn't have thought of a better way," Conrad told Gothamist this month.
Pratt did not make an announcement to the school community about Milster's move, according to students and staff, and the school's website still lists him as chief engineer. The press office declined to provide any details on the job change, stating only that "Conrad continues to both work in the facilities department at Pratt Institute and live in his townhouse on campus."
But a June letter from the administration to Milster shows that the decision stemmed from an ongoing conflict over numerous stray cats that have populated the engine room for decades. It states that Milster failed to keep the cats out despite repeated orders to do so.
Milster's salary has not been reduced, and the 80-year-old campus fixture has not been asked to vacate his campus housing. But the job change has taken a mental and physical toll, he says. A case of shingles, latent for five years, is back.
"I'm a high-grade janitor," Milster said. "I have a staff to take out trash, and I supervise everything from cleaning bathrooms, to changing lightbulbs, to moving chairs and setting up tables. The responsibilities here are much less."
"He's the last chief engineer of the old guard in New York City," said a longtime Pratt services supplier (who declined to provide his name, fearing retribution). "They didn't make an announcement or throw him a celebration."
"It has destroyed me mentally," Milster said. "My stomach still churns, my brain still churns. I can't help but think about it. After half a century, you can't let go. People say, 'Let go.' I can't. It's too ingrained in me."
Milster's reassignment is the latest in a string of conflicts he's had with the Pratt administration. Last September Milster and four faculty members were issued eviction notices to make way for student housing. Pratt then made an exception for Milster, following student and alumni outcry, so long as he is employed by the school. "We look forward to Conrad's continued presence in the Pratt community for many years to come," President Thomas Schutte told students at the time.
The cat problem surfaced in May 2013, when Pratt told Milster that the engine room cats would have to go, as they were aggravating coworkers' allergies. More than 1,300 students signed a petition stating that, "To evict these animals would be detrimental not only to the hundreds of students that have become close to them, but to the image and reputation of the administration itself." Pratt relented, agreeing to install air conditioners in the engine room to improve airflow.
George Larino, a union engineer at Pratt, took several weeks of workman's compensation this year citing cat allergies, according to Milster and others. "HR sent down memos that we were supposed to keep the cats out. Most of the people, and I have to include myself, sort of ignored that," Milster said, adding that he did take measures to keep cats out of the office he shared with Larino.
"This action is necessitated by the continuing problem of cats being present in the Engine Room, causing an allergic employee to be on extended worker's compensation leave," the June 2016 Human Resources letter to Milster states. "We have made several efforts to reasonably resolve this situation to everyone's satisfaction, including yours."
"Unfortunately, and I tried to say this to Conrad, he gave them a loaded gun," said the anonymous services supplier. "Conrad wasn't as diligent in keeping the cats removed as was directed."
"The administration's really smart," he added. "They didn't reduce his salary... so they really have the higher ground. Now, the question to me is, does the punishment really fit the crime? I don't think so."
Larino and the temporary chief engineer, Kenny Loeffle, declined comment.
One of Milster's house cats, lounging on his couch (Scott Heins / Gothamist).
"It doesn't surprise me," said Emily Poulis, a recent Pratt alumna who started a petition in 2015 in opposition to the faculty evictions. "The administration isn't transparent about anything they do." In addition to the evictions, she cited Pratt's decision last February to cancel its juried student art show, one day after students lost their tuition refund eligibility.
"Every alumni I've ever met, they love him," said the longtime supplier. "How much did it cost Pratt and its fundraising efforts to remove someone who has a 60 year history, without a succession plan?"
He added that without the steam whistle salute, and thanks to rules that limited Milster's engine room tours in recent years, "a lot of people on campus currently aren't so aware" of his legacy.
Of Pratt's 27 townhouses, 22 have been renovated as of this fall, according to the school. Milster, who lives rent-free, says he's one of two staff members remaining (Pratt did not immediately confirm this). Undergraduates pay $5,180 per semester for a single furnished room and common spaces, and six students live in each house.
"I'm over 80. I'm in a house that they want to renovate," Milster said. "I have my own suspicions about what they've done."
Milster's steam engine models, stacked up in his backyard (Scott Heins / Gothamist).
Milster stood in his tiny backyard on Willoughby Avenue on a recent evening, peeling back the tarp over a stack of his handmade miniature steam engines. He used to demonstrate the tiny wood-fired machines for students during engine room tours. WQXR, the local classical radio station, wafted out through the screen door, and several cats padded through the low shrubs.
"I finally realized, which has taken a hell of a long time, that I'm gonna have to get out," he said. "If they didn't have the cat excuse I'm sure they would have found another excuse."
In recent years, Milster said, he'd begun to consider retirement. He'd even been thinking about it this summer—work through one more heating season, and mentor a replacement chief. But HR's directive, which came two weeks before his end date, felt too abrupt.
"You're taking the chief engineer out of a power plant in the middle of all of the heavy summer maintenance, which is necessary to insure a reliable operation next winter," he said. "So the mechanical timing was atrocious. But there were no students. The faculty was gone. Nobody was around to make a fuss."
The same steam engines that Milster used in the 1950s, with parts that date back to 1900, still function today. Most of the replacement parts have long since gone out of production, so he's fabricated his own. "I'm sort of interested, in a negative way, as to what will happen this winter," Milster said.
Now he's daydreaming about finding a Victorian home, ideally with a front porch and basement workshop. He says he's even got a few leads within his budget on Staten Island. In a few weeks he'll take his driver's test, which would make living on Staten Island in the cold months more feasible. In his 58 years living and working at Pratt, he's never felt the need to own or drive a car.
"I sort of thought in my fond, stupid dreams that I would go out like a hero, after all of these years of service," Milster said. "But the way it's happened, I'll just sneak away as quietly as I can."
Pratt declined to answer a second round of questions pertaining to the specifics of Milster's removal from the engine room. "Pratt Institute does not comment on these personnel issues," a spokeswoman said.