Monday, January 1, 2007

Conrad Milster, Steam Whistle Blow, 1997-2007

For the last several years of New Year's Eves, Julie and I have loudly declared that at midnight we would be standing in the cold dark, listening to the thundering honks and hrrms and general blasting of annual steam whistle blow presented on the Pratt Institute campus by the art school's longtime chief engineer. And ever year, we find ourselves at our friend Paul Morris' lowkey New Year Eve's party, mildly drunk and very full from an elaborate pot luck dinner, too lazy to get on the G and ride out to the Pratt Institute for the steam whistles. But this year, nudged along by some friends, we jumped into a cab at 11:40 and made it in time.

The last time I attended was New Year's Eve, 1997. I wrote about Milster, the Chief Engineer of Pratt Institute, for Spike Lee's shortlived Brooklyn Bridge magazine.


Conrad H. Milster, chief engineer of the Pratt Institute Power House, is a man given to mechanical gestures. His long arms bend themselves into the shapes of machines as he explains their inner workings, and his permanently oil-darkened fingers seem shaped to grip heavy wrenches. Tall and sandy-haired with graying mutton-chops beneath a short stove-pipe cap, he explains his dedication to the trio of turn-of-the-century steam engines that are his working showpieces: "I am a preservationist of mechanical artifacts. Some people save buildings, with the furniture and lace and all that. I save engines. Today, machinery is buried behind walls, but I have seen machinery that was built to be art."

Milster points from his office on a balcony above the engine room to the smooth swell of iron grooves, known as flukes, that line the crankcase covers of the engine below. "Purely decorative! Without purpose! The Victorians were incapable of making plain machinery. They had a passion for ornateness." A passion Milster shares: "I am a technological Victorian."

Every New Year's Eve, Milster takes his devotion to the beauty of machines and the power of steam beyond the walls of the engine room with a midnight blowing of steam whistles that once signaled hurtling locomotives, ships coming to shore and the changing of the shifts at factories. "When I was a kid growing up in Astoria," Milster says, "the factories--which are all gone now--blew their whistles together every year on New Year's Eve."

Now, just before midnight, Milster's wife, Phyllis, bundled against the cold, takes her position by the main valve of a steam pipe Milster runs onto the campus yard for the occasion. Disappearing into a small cloud of hissing vapor, she releases 120 pounds of pressure into the line. The whistles moan, scream, honk, hiss, and roar, the songs and signals of frigates and ferry boars, a great passenger liner and the iron horses of the New York Central Railroad, a candle factory, a rubber factory, and the Brooklyn-based U.S. Projectile Company.

Milter acquired his first whistle, a rusty five-noter, from the Lackawanna railroad a few years before he began his tenure as a steam engineer at the Pratt power plant in 1958. But he didn't hear his whistle blow until he'd worked there seven years. "The first time I blew my whistle was the year I became chief engineer: New Year's Eve, 1965." These days, Milster is joined every year by a small band of whistle collectors.

"There's an argument among collectors about polishing the whistles," Milster says, showing off his personal collection in his backyard, just off campus. "I look at it from the point of view of achievement." He hefted a small bomb-like whistle from an old ferry boat. "This whistle achieved its distinct patina in seventy-five years. Who am I to take that away? I can't argue with history."

Milster's 1965 whistle blow marked the beginning of a rennaissance for the antique engines that powered it. Built in 1887, the engine room was once the pride of the campus, a place for couples to stroll on a Sunday afternoon. Sitting before a marble control panel beneath the viewing balcony, the engines are lit by 25 tulip-shaped lamps. Steam from three boilers once flowed through a network of pipes into the engines that in turn rotated huge flywheels five feet in diameter. The flywheels conncted to generators that supplied the campus' electricity, and the excess steam flowed through pipes to the dorms, keeping them toasty.

But by the 1950s, the steam engines were no longer needed. When Milster began his life's work as a steam engineer, the viewing windows that surround the room had been blacked over, evidence of an age distinterested in its own machines. Milster's first act as chief engineer, seven years later, was to clean the windows. Then, he installed a three-tiered gilded chandelier, and painted the generator casings red, with ornate gold trim. "The spinning wheel is a primitive urge," he says. "Here in the engine room, you see and hear motion, you smell the oil. The man who ran a steam engine saw how things worked. You were always adjusting the flow, checking the bearings, listening to the sound of the machine. To be a talented engineer, you have to emphathize with the machinery. If you have talent, the aesthetics of a good machine will grow on you."


The article went on to describe a New Year's Eve blow, but I'll cut it off here. My impressions, ten years on, are that the particular pleasures of ghost horns and steam clouds rolling into the night air can't -- or shouldn't -- be described in the magazine prose that only hints at Conrad Milster's unaffected devotion to his machines. I recommend attendance; you have a year to make your plans.

(A blogger called "The Real Janelle" offers three photographs of the grittier corners of the Pratt Power House and a short video clip of one of the old engines in motion.)