Photo: Taylor Reschka
Steve Hofstetter never planned to buy a church in Pittsburgh, but today he can say he’s the proud owner of two. Before the pandemic took him to the City of Bridges, the New York born and raised comedian made a name for himself on the comedy circuits in New York and Los Angeles, hosting and producing season one of Laughs on FOX and amassing more than 750,000 subscribers on YouTube.
Hofstetter is now using his platform to help new comedians and artists get ahead in the industry—and that’s where the churches come in. The first church Hofstetter purchased in 2020 in Stanton Heights serves as the home of the Steel City Arts Foundation (Steel City AF). Founded in honor of Hofstetter’s father, the nonprofit dubs itself a “live-work-play” environment for comedians.
The space has a detached three-bedroom home that houses comedians for nine months at a time, free of charge. There’s also a computer lab, gym, comedy library, recording studio, and a digital showroom that can be used for open mics and digital shows. The chapel itself houses a performance space and events center that can host art and comedy shows, lectures, food halls, or even be used to film movies and TV.
Building off Steel City AF, Hofstetter’s second church purchase in Ross this year aims to develop Pittsburgh’s arts scene even further. This time, he’s transforming a former church into a comedy club and film production studio. The church is commercially zoned and previously served as the Melwood Party Center about five minutes southwest of Ross Park mall.
Busy with our own church renovation, ELDI got connected with Hofstetter through a Pittsburgh Business Times story on church buildings in the East End. That connection led to us giving him a tour of Sts. Peter and Paul where we got to hear about all of the good work he’s doing in the city. Dive into our conversation with Hofstetter below where we talk about how he ended up in Pittsburgh, his vision for Steel City AF, and what he thinks Pittsburgh’s comedy scene needs more of.
Tell us the story of how you ended up buying two churches in Pittsburgh.
I first got the idea to do something like this in a church when I was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I kept passing by this gorgeous, but also dilapidated, church just outside the city, and I thought what a cool performance space it could be. I looked into it, and someone had purchased it for hardly anything a few years earlier and hadn’t done anything with it since. I tried to get in touch but never heard back. But it was this idea that I filed away as something I would like to eventually do, and every couple of months I would check out what was available.
Then, when the pandemic hit, not only did it give me a lot more time to be on the internet, but it also made me reconsider both my priorities and the entertainment industry as a whole and how [entertainers] don’t need to be based in New York or LA anymore. The world is digital—you can really be based wherever it is that you want to live, so I kept looking and I found this amazing building in Pittsburgh that was surprisingly affordable. I went to go see it, and it was perfect.
What brought you to Pittsburgh initially?
I was living in LA at the time of the pandemic, but I’ve always liked Pittsburgh. I would tour here as a comedian, and I was always surprised by the city, because Pittsburgh’s reputation for people who haven’t been here is this cold steel town where everyone’s covered in soot and all the pictures are in black and white. I don’t know if Pittsburgh is trying to hide how great it is (laughs) or it just needs to get the word out a little better, but physically it is one of the most beautiful cities in the country, and it’s incredibly affordable. It is compact enough that you can get anywhere under a half hour, and most places in 15 minutes. It’s got everything that a big city has without most of the drawbacks. So, it was one of the places I had considered looking. There weren’t many cities I was willing to live in—and I wasn’t willing to live in anything other than a city—so that kind of narrowed down where I was looking.
When did you make the move?
February 2021, so the pandemic was still raging. It became easy for me to see that I loved Pittsburgh, because if I enjoyed it in the dead of winter while most of it was closed, of course I was going to like it.
Did you have to do a lot of renovations on the Steel City AF church?
Tons—a lot of construction and some modernizing when it comes to tech. A lot of people have these visions of buying an old building and converting it. That’s great, and I highly recommend it, but I also recommend that people be realistic about it and understand that these buildings weren’t made for internet. They weren’t made for cell phones, so getting WIFI in every inch of this building was a Sisyphean task. We have a lot of technology running this building now, but it took a bit to get it all there.
Why did you want to start Steel City AF?
The precursor to it for me was something called the Martin Foundation. My father’s name was Martin. It’s founded in his memory. The idea was there are over 1,000 nonprofits that focus on comedians helping other people, but at the time I started the Martin Foundation, there wasn’t a single one that looked inward. It was always everything from comic relief to laugh for sight—all these great organizations where comedians would do benefits for other people, but at the same time, we have an industry where depression is higher than average, anxiety is higher than average, and suicide is higher than average. So, I wanted to create something that would help comedians. My father was a very charitable person. He didn’t have any money, but he donated his time. When he passed, his death was a reminder that you shouldn’t wait on things. So, I started the foundation, and from there, the idea grew.
When the pandemic hit, it went from one sizable scholarship to 30 different $1,000 grants to comedians to keep people working at a time when it was illegal for us to do shows. Then, when I found the building, it shaped a lot of what we do, because having the additional three-bedroom house on the property allowed us to house comedians, the fact that the previous owner was a record producer and had created basically a control booth allowed me to create a recording studio, so a lot of the ideas came from just looking at the building and going, “Okay, what can this be?”
You have talked about how being a good neighbor is important to you and a priority of Steel City AF. What does being a good neighbor mean to you, especially as someone who has lived all over the US?
Well, this is the first time that I’ve had neighbors that I know. Living in New York and LA, you pretty much have to be a gossip in order to get to know your neighbors (laughs), whereas this is a neighborhood, and it’s a lot easier to meet people. There’s no way to make everybody happy, but we do what we can to use our influence to help with local events. We sponsored a neighborhood clean-up and a local soccer team, things like that. Then there are also things like keeping up the appearance of the property. We installed a new fence, which not only beautifies the property but also creates some sound barrier and privacy. We planted a bunch of trees. Again, both for beautification, but also, this is something we coordinated with the city because there are studies that show treelined streets create a safer neighborhood. We also put in sound panels in the chapel, because I’m someone who loves being able to sleep, so the last thing I want to do is be the neighbor that prevents other people from doing that.
What is your ultimate vision for Steel City AF?
Right now, we have over 30 members and an elected board where members help guide the organization. We have a development program where, step by step, we’re teaching people how to turn comedy into a career, and not just picking up a couple of bucks here and there. If this goes incredibly well, I’d love to see other people do the same thing in other cities. I’d love to see this help enhance the comedy and art scenes all over the place. For now, I’m concentrating on Pittsburgh. This has now been my home for two years, and I love it. I hope that other people can see what we’ve done as proof of concept and do the same.
What do you think Pittsburgh’s comedy scene could use more of?
Mentorship. Pittsburgh has produced a lot of really wonderful comedians, and most of them have moved out of the city. Every major city I’ve ever performed in has a collection of five to 10 working headliners—people who are headlining A-list comedy clubs around the country and world that just live in the city because they like it there, they’re from there, their family is there, etc. Pittsburgh doesn’t have as much of that as many of the other cities I’ve been to. Some of our members are going to get opportunities and then use them to go have a career in New York, LA, or somewhere else. But what I’d love to do is get to the point where people see Pittsburgh as a wonderful place to be based and to help the next generation of comedians.
Last question: What do you think of Sts. Peter and Paul Church?
What a gorgeous space! It needs a ton of work, but the bones are amazing and rather than let it sit dormant like it has for over two decades now, wouldn’t it be wonderful to save that gorgeous building and turn it into something that people can enjoy?