After checking a multitude of old dials and meters down in the sprawling old steam plant, Conrad Milster, the plant’s chief engineer, returned to his Dickensian office at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and spied a hungry gray cat outside his window.
“This is Dulcie,” said Mr. Milster, 77, letting her in. “She comes in to eat and then goes somewhere else. A lot of these rascals have good deals set up here.”
These rascals are the Pratt cats, a population of ownerless cats that for decades have been padding around amid the historic buildings and lawn sculptures on campus, befriending students and faculty members.
The cats have become legendary at this school of art and design in Clinton Hill, as has the curious, century-old steam plant housed in the basement of East Hall that many of them call their home, or at least their student union.
“For some of them, this is sort of the backup lunch counter,” said Mr. Milster, a lanky Queens native with red mutton chops and grimy jeans and calloused hands.
Since 1958, he has operated the plant, which provides heat and hot water to the campus. He is a revered figure at Pratt for his tending of both the plant and the cats, and for his rigging of steam whistles to the system and blowing them off loudly on New Year’s Eve for neighborhood residents.
The cats have become mascots to some students, including one called the Landlord, a snaggletoothed little guy who likes to keep watch over a Willoughby Street dorm. Then there is Lastat, Nicky, Teddy, Mickey and a cranky cutie known as Art School, who recently got soaked by an artist’s bottle of linseed oil and had to be taken to a Park Slope veterinarian who treats the Pratt cats.
Given the cats’ stature on campus, pangs of panic rippled through the school recently when school administrators told Mr. Milster that many cats would have to be removed because they were aggravating allergies suffered by staff members.
Many student and faculty members quickly circulated and signed petitions urging the administration to relent. Mr. Milster took three cats into the house that Pratt provides him on campus, where he already has about 18 cats rescued from campus over the years. Still, he was prepared to take in any other cats that might face removal, he said.
A Pratt spokeswoman did not immediately respond to calls and an e-mail on Friday morning.
But Mr. Milster said he met with Pratt officials this week and was told that the cats could stay if he created a dander-free space in the steam plant office by closing doors and windows and installing an air-conditioner.
As he spoke on Wednesday, several cats patrolled the balcony above the old plant’s equipment. One arose from a snooze on a steam pipe and wandered in to nibble leftovers from Mr. Milster’s sandwich.
“This is Prancey,” he said, “She usually sleeps upstairs in an art department office and comes down for meals. Yeah, they really know how to work the crowd here.”
But they also give back, he said, by helping to make Pratt feel like a family, he said, providing comfort to stressed-out students, especially after a fire in February damaged the Main Building and destroyed student art work inside.
“One of the few comforting things we had, after that, was the cats,” he said. “The students are very attached to these beasties. They have a real psychological value.”
Some estimates have put the number of cats in the dozens or even more than 100, but Mr. Milster said only a dozen frequent the steam plant.
“I’d have to count noses to be sure,” he said.
Some access the plant through utility tunnels under the campus. Others scoot in through his office window or with students through the building’s main entrance. They seem to love the warmth, the loud thrum of the machines, and the litter boxes and food – dry and wet – that Mr. Milster leaves out for them, at his own expense. The cats are depicted in photographs throughout the plant, including an homage to Big Momma, a huge black-and-white female who lived in the machine shop and died recently.
The original plant was built in 1887 and its steam-driven generators, installed in 1900, are thought to be the oldest in the Northeast. It serves as something of a museum piece and drawing subject for Pratt students, with its flywheels, glass-encased dials and pressure gauges, huge pipes and pistons.
“It’s really a 19th-century power plant,” Mr. Milster said, walking through the plant. “If this stops in the winter, Pratt stops.”
The cats seem to instinctively avoid electrical current and moving parts, he said, adding, “You could say they know more than human beings about respecting the machinery.”
Decades ago, he and his wife began taking in cats dumped on campus, or left behind by departing students. They would neuter them for possible adoption. They would take sick or nuisance cats to their home, and at one point had more than 50 living with them, he said. They enjoyed entering the healthier ones in shows, and Mr. Milster hung dozens of prize ribbons in the plant’s front window. He removed them recently when the cat controversy began, to lower the cats’ profile. But now, he said, he may hang them back up.
“These are not just street strays,” he said above the hum of his steam engines. “These are prize winners.”