Steve Hofstetter moved to Pittsburgh more than two years ago with the goal of turning a former Stanton Heights church into a live-work-play space for comedians. He dubbed the fledgling funny-people incubator Steel City Arts Foundation — aka Steel City AF — and so far he’s used it for everything from comedy classes to a movie set.
But renovating one Western Pennsylvania church apparently wasn’t enough of a challenge for him.
Earlier this month, Hofstetter announced on Facebook that he’d purchased yet another converted church that he has begun calling Sunken Bus Studios. Not only is this property at 3312 Babcock Blvd. in Ross only a short drive from Downtown, but also it comes with pre-built recording spaces that are perfect for the kind of art Hofstetter envisioned fostering when he first left Los Angeles for the Steel City.
“I truly didn’t know what the future would hold,” Hofstetter told the Union Progress. “I didn’t know that the connection that I felt with Pittsburgh would be as strong as it’s become as quickly as it’s become. I did know that my intention was to change the game a bit, and this falls in line with that.”
Hofstetter’s latest acquisition started out as a schoolhouse in the early 20th century, according to building co-owner Hollis Greathouse. It was taken over by Mellwood Presbyterian Church before eventually being bought by catering company Mellwood Party Center, whose sign still adorns the facade.
Greathouse is a Fort Worth, Texas, native with 35 years of experience as a recording engineer in the music industry. He first moved to Pittsburgh in 1990 and purchased the building in 2004 with Audible Images founder Jay Dudt. The duo opened the recording spaces there in 2006, and they have since been used by the likes of Dave Matthews, Ne-Yo, Richie Sambora, Black Label Society, members of the Wu-Tang Clan, and Leslie Odom Jr.
The building went up for sale after the now-late owner of Mellwood Party Center decided he was ready to retire, Greathouse said. Hofstetter said he’ll officially close on it March 30 after forking over $720,000. He has taken out a construction loan worth $150,000, and hopes the renovations will be complete in time to start hosting events in June or July.
Everything about this property “is exactly what we need,” Hofstetter said. Besides the “and fully functional” studios, the column-less room that previously served as a chapel is perfect for both filming and putting on live shows. Logistically, the building is already zoned for mixed commercial use, which has been what’s holding up the Stanton Heights location from being able to hold performances. Hofstetter also estimated that there will be 50-plus parking spaces once all enhancements are finished.
Though Greathouse was surprised when a comedian reached out regarding the building, he said the sale has been “about as smooth as any deal could possibly go.” He’s looking forward to seeing how Hofstetter uses all the resources he’ll be inheriting.
“My dad taught me that you should always leave a place better than you found it,” Greathouse said. “I feel like we’ve done that, but we didn’t get all the way where I wanted it to go. Steve’s going to take it all the way, and I’m really excited to see that.”
There’s already a few plans in place for Hofstetter to loop local creatives into his burgeoning real estate empire. He plans to continue working with Brian and Cody Hartman, the father-son duo who recently produced and directed the thriller “Overhaul” that was shot at Steel City AF.
He has also already found a new tenant for the former Audible Images spaces: Red Caiman Studios, a recording and audio postproduction outfit that will be vacating its current Uptown studio on Fifth Avenue. Owner Jesse Naus said Red Caiman has done dialogue touch-up work on everything from the AMC series “Fear the Walking Dead” to Netflix’s “The Lincoln Lawyer” show to the locally filmed indie thriller “Basic Psych.”
Naus first connected with Hofstetter through Greathouse and Dudt. It quickly became clear that “a lot of our interests were aligned with each other,” he said. Not only was Naus excited for parking to become much less of an issue, but also Red Caiman’s lease affords them the ability to run at least three studios in the Ross building.
That’s “a huge expansion” for Red Caiman, Naus said, and one that will give his business the potential to put out “a huge amount of really top-quality work across the spectrum.”
“We can literally walk into a room that’s already built and ready to go,” he said. “That’s what you find in Los Angeles, not in Pittsburgh. For all of us, it’s an exciting thing having that in one spot.”
The name Sunken Bus Studios is a riff on “how many buses have been airlifted out of holes in Pittsburgh,” Hofstetter said. He went with the reference to show how “we’re not pretending to be Hollywood,” and he’s even thinking about putting up a “NOT HOLLYWOOD” sign and a part of a bus sticking up from the ground to complete the theme.
Hofstetter said Sunken Bus Studios will have three purposes: for audiences to experience “curated comedy,” for local creatives to grow and network, and for out-of-town performers to learn why Pittsburgh “is a must stop” every time they go on tour.
“I really want people to be inspired to work with other incredible professionals,” he said. “This provides them an option in their backyard. Our job is to make it cool enough that people will want to drive here from Cleveland.”