Brother Conrad Federspiel, C.P.: 1960s Maintenance as Ministry at Cardinal Spellman Retreat, Riverdale, New York
Summarized by Father Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
What was it like to do maintenance at Cardinal Spellman Retreat House? As part of the 40th anniversary celebration, Brother Conrad Federspiel, C.P. agreed to answer this question on April 6, 2007. Friends of Riverdale will agree that his insights breathe new life and understanding into the gospel-worn, concrete edifice on the Hudson River. My summary is based on notes compiled from the taped interview.
Brother Federspiel recalls that he chauffeured some Passionists to Riverdale after he entered the Passionists in 1952. On his most memorable visit, he left Union City, New Jersey and traveled by car up the Palisades Parkway to Alpine, New Jersey. There, he took his car on board the Westchester Ferry. It landed near Getty Square in Yonkers, New York. The ferry discontinued service on December 16, 1956 because it could not compete with the accessibility afforded by the Tappan Zee Bridge, which had opened in 1955.
Riverdale was a short drive from Yonkers. He went down Broadway, past The College of Mt. Saint Vincent. Opposite 261st Street, he turned right onto Palisade Avenue in the Bronx. This brought him past the Hebrew Home. Begun in 1951, it was the former site of the Colored Orphan Asylum which had been the childhood home to singer Ella Fitzgerald. Entrance to the Passionist property required making a right turn at the original Allien estate horse stable. A short quarter-mile roadway hugged the terrain to bring him directly to the Blessed Strambi Passionist Residence. “The natural beauty of the place” captivated Brother Federspiel. There were “huge trees” and a stellar view downhill to the Hudson River. He remembers that there was a caretaker’s house on the property “down near the bridge across the tracks.”
Brother Federspiel recalls being assigned to Riverdale in 1967. Construction was “quite advanced.” He was assigned to work with the project overseer and clerk of the works, Father Christopher Berlo, C.P. Born in 1902, Berlo professed his vows in 1921. He was sent to Germany to continue his studies and was ordained a Passionist priest in 1927. He remained in Germany where he was a major force in the building of the Passionist monastery at Meisberg, Schwarzenfeld in the 1930s. Quickly, Brother Federspiel recognized Father Berlo’s keen eye for the details. Everyday, Father Berlo walked about the Riverdale site checking the delivery from each supply company. He wanted to make sure that each vendor “did not substitute or send inferior quality material.”
During his first few days at Riverdale, Brother Federspiel recollects how Father Berlo “never said boo to me.” Soon he got his first task: put the room numbers on all the doors of the retreat house. Brother Federspiel recognized the best approach was to devise a template system which allowed him to hang the numbers quickly. A couple of days later, Father Berlo asked him how the work was proceeding and was pleasantly surprised that it had been successfully completed. They hit it off. “I came under his wing,” says Brother Federspiel. “From there on, I could talk his language.” It was the same language that allowed Father Berlo to have the respect of the many artisans and electricians who worked in the building of the Cardinal Spellman Retreat House. These same workers asked Brother Federspiel if he was a union man. In the end they accepted his Passionist status with Father Berlo. When expected “discrepancies” arose regarding the blueprints, a call from Father Berlo to the retreat house architect Brother Cajetan Baumann held great weight. Many times original blueprints were reworked before the project proceeded.
Architectural challenges faced in building Cardinal Spellman
I personally lived at Riverdale from 1992 to 1995. I asked Brother Federspiel to answer my long-standing questions about this Passionist spiritual oasis in the Bronx.
- How would you describe Brother Baumann?He was a skilled Franciscan architect whose offices were on Whitehall Street in lower Manhattan, New York City. Brother Federspiel found Brother Baumann had a “quiet approach.” He was “low key” with “strong ideas.” He had a definite architectural philosophy. He respected established building lines and opted to use modern building materials as exemplified in the retreat house tower and chapel.
- Were there any particular challenges during the building process?Brother Federspiel says he told Brother Baumann that early retreatants complained that it was too cold to sit by the dining room windows because of the winter winds of the Hudson. The Franciscan told the Passionist to simply “jack up” the thermostat because “oil is cheap.” Brother Federspiel remembers that, “Six months later, oil wasn’t cheap,” and has never been since.He later was surprised to learn that the back tower was built without concern for the wind. As a result, Hudson River winds were a constant problem. This hit home to Brother Federspiel because he had previously worked in maintenance for the Passionists at Holy Cross Seminary in Dunkirk, New York, where he had first hand experience of Lake Erie winds. He also learned how the selection of the final steel design had been the subject of much debate between Father Luke Missett, C.P., a veteran member of Passionist province planning committee and ally of Brother Baumann, and Father Berlo. Even after the tower was completed, a group of young retreatants finally helped solve the wind problem by erecting aluminum and, later, glass panels. This prevented the winds from ripping the doors open.The electrical system was another challenge. Early on, one worker informed Brother Federspiel that he had “never seen such a lousy way in which this building was wired.” Fifty-five of ninety-one rooms were wired incorrectly. Tempers flared at a meeting to resolve the issue, especially when it was learned that the blueprints did show incorrect wiring! To save money, it was agreed that Brother Federspiel would rewire the rooms, but only when every union man was off the property- to keep the peace. Often, he began work at 5:00 p.m., ate, and then went on to work till midnight till the job was done.
- How did they build the kitchen area in the back of the retreat house?Brother Federspiel says the back loading dock was an afterthought because Brother Baumann envisioned that laundry and produce deliveries would arrive at the front door, then be loaded on the elevator and brought to the kitchen! Correctly, Brother Ignatius Bakish, C.P. complained. As a result, Father Berlo coordinated the effort to pour a concrete slab landing off the kitchen. This enabled as many as three trucks to dock and unload at the same time. Ever ambitious, Father Berlo presented a plan for a garbage shed in the back. Guido Civetta, stone mason on the project, responded to the challenge. After he had built the oval garden walls at the front entrance of the retreat center from stone trucked in from the mid-town Manhattan excavation site for the Americana Hotel, he proceeded to craft the garbage shed from sculpted stone as well. Brother Federspiel tells how Father Berlo returned from a weekend away “surprised” to see that the project was completed.
- What about the bunker shaped building just off the back entrance roadway?Brother Federspiel told how the original contractor would not warrantee the boiler because it had a tendency to get “too hot” in the building that had been constructed to house it. Cutting into the concrete slab and putting in a six foot fan would have altered the visual site of the building, but a retreatant saved the day by suggesting that Father Berlo simply install a window fan, because the air “draft would always follow the wall.” Once it was completed, Father Berlo double-checked with a cigar. “He blew [the smoke] into the air and watched it go around, and just as the man said it would. And that solved the ventilation problem.”
- Did Riverdale’s architecture affect maintenance?In retrospect, Brother Federspiel admits maintenance at Riverdale was unlike that of a traditional late 19th and early 20th century Passionist monastery. The challenges were totally new. For example, never before had he been asked to clean ribbon windows, nor had he worked with carpeting. Care for commercial air conditioning was a new adventure. The hilly Riverdale landscape required appropriate machinery and on the job concentration to mow. Like preachers debating the way to preach a retreat, vendors had opinions on how to maintain a terrazzo floor. “It was just different. It was a step above what we were ever trained to do.” After all, in Dunkirk, New York he had used coal for heat!
Riverdale: Urban peace and beauty
Brother Federspiel admits that he came to love Riverdale, especially from the late 1970s till the early 1990s when he lived with the small Passionist community that surrounded Passionist Father Tom Berry at the Riverdale Center of Religious Research (the old Allien Estate). In particular, he liked to cross the bridge down near The College of Mount St. Vincent and walk along the water between the railroad track and the water to the Metro North Station He and Father Berry loved to walk the walk and meet people from St. Margaret’s Parish. “It was kind of friendly place.”
Personally, I found Brother Federspiel answered a good many of my questions. Knowledge about maintenance as ministry adds depth to the 40th celebration of Cardinal Spellman Retreat House.