Origins and construction

The Energy Innovation Center is housed in the former Connelley Trade School, which was built in 1930 in the Hill District neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The site of was selected for practical reasons: perched high on the hill, the school was above much of the air pollution that plagued Pittsburgh; it was also well connected to other areas by trolley and Union Station. The Board of Education purchased the lot and hired Edward B. Lee, an architect known for his work on academic buildings, to design the structure, at a cost of over $1.4 million.

Vocational education at Connelley

Opened officially in 1931, the Connelley Trade School was one of the largest in the state and most modern in the country. One of its novel features was a “radio speaker system” (so-called at the time), which enabled broadcasts throughout the building’s classrooms. The building also included a library, science labs, cafeteria, gym, swimming pool and auditorium. On the north side was the “shop” building equipped with industrial machinery and designed just like a modern factory. Students could learn bricklaying and plastering, plumbing, auto mechanics, electrical wiring, carpentry and cabinetry, graphic arts and more. There was also a mill room and “power and equipment” shop. After 1945, agriculture was also introduced.

Clifford B. Connelley: innovator in education

The school was named in honor of Clifford Brown Connelley (1863-1928), a pioneer of vocational education and prominent civic leader. Notably, he was also one of the original designers of Carnegie-Mellon University. From a young Connelley was adept at design and handcrafts. In light of his monumental later achievements, it is ironic that Connelley himself left school at age 11—first to work as a messenger boy for a local iron and steel company, and then to apprentice with a Philadelphia engineer. Despite his mother’s wishes that he enter the clergy, Connelley was drawn towards drafting and pattern-making. He eventually completed his high school education and worked his way through Western University of Pennsylvania (now the University of Pittsburgh). He founded the first vocational school in Pittsburgh in 1896, and went on to become a charter member of the Pittsburgh Board of education. Connelley also enjoyed a distinguished political career, serving on Pittsburgh city council and as Pennsylvania’s Commissioner of Labor and Industry (1919-1923).

The effects of war

The Connelley school was designed for 1600 students, but as many as 1800 students occupied these facilities at its height from 1939-1940. With the onset of World War II, enrollment dropped sharply. Instead of pursuing trade education, many young men were drawn instead into the National Defense Program, which provided skilled and semi-skilled job opportunities. The decline sharpened when the selective service age was reduced to 18 years. Nevertheless, the shops stayed busy supporting the war effort. During this period boys and young men were trained for military industrial production—although war production itself never took place at Connelley. Following the war and increasingly after the Korean War Bill was introduced, Connelley welcomed many veterans and enrollment numbers recovered.

Working with industry

To ensure the quality of Connelley’s programs, administrators formed an advisory committee with industry and union leaders. The committee helped Connelley keep abreast of changing workforce needs. It also provided paid internships through the “Cooperative Training Program”, which was already established as a key element of vocational education even before Connelley’s opening. Educators had observed that students left school with strong technical skills, but few were promoted over time. Placing students in real work environments early on addressed the problem, by exposing them to the “why’s” of industrial processes necessary for success in management.

Decline and closure

As Pittsburgh’s industrial landscape changed, so did Connelley’s profile. Over the years it took on new identities, changing its name to “vocational school” in 1931, “Skill Learning Center” in the 1970s and finally, “Technical Institute and Adult Education Center” two decades later. But despite these progressive adjustments, Connelley could not survive the collapse of the rustbelt economy. Enrollment declined along with Pittsburgh’s population until finally, in 2004, the Board of Education shuttered it altogether.

The Connelley legacy today

But the Connelley story was far from over. Many continued to advocate for a reinvestment in vocational education, including parents, educators and foundation leaders. During his campaign for mayor, Bill Peduto took up the cause, calling for a “Pittsburgh Connelley for the 21st century.” Today their vision is being realized in the new Energy Innovation Center. Under the leadership of Pittsburgh Gateways Corporation, with the help of non-profits, unions, foundations, regional universities and industry partners, the EIC continues to draw inspiration from the legacy Clifford B. Connelley, while pledging his vision to a greener, more sustainable future.