Resource Library

Actors and Acolytes

Resource from Faithful Generosity Story Shelf
Resource Library

Actors and Acolytes

Photo of a brick building in NYC with a sign reading: Houghton Hall Arts Community.
Houghton Hall Arts Community provides rehearsal space to the theater community and rental income to its neighbor, The Church of the Transfiguration. Photo by Michael William Bernstein.

By Dan Holly

The Church of the Transfiguration in New York City has a lot of things going for it – a prime location in midtown Manhattan just blocks from the iconic Empire State Building; a rich history (it was a stop on the Underground Railroad); and a Gothic-style brick building with national landmark status. But until recently the church also had something of an albatross – it owned property next door that sat empty.

The Episcopal church does not need the neighboring property, which consists of the first four floors of a modern building, for church functions. But it has depended on the space for rental income, according to Katherine Hutt, the clerk of the church’s vestry.

“We had a tenant for many years that provided income needed to support the historic [church] property, which is expensive to maintain,” Hutt said. “They moved out during the height of the pandemic and we were not able to find a new renter.”

The church came up with an oh-so-New York solution – it is now renting the property to theater groups. Hutt explained: “We decided to turn the space into a rehearsal facility for theatre groups and manage it ourselves.”

In early 2022, the empty space was transformed into the Houghton Hall Arts Community. Hutt, who is also president of a communications company, co-founded the community organization.

“More than 50 different groups have rented space: theatre companies, acting schools and teachers, dance groups, clowning and stage combat instructors, play reading groups, and more,” Hutt explained. “…We have also hosted a number of events, including training for public school theatre teachers, a piano festival, a teen theatre festival, black box style performances, and a songwriting collaborative.”

She added: “The long-term goal for Houghton Hall is to replace the revenue that a single tenant provided to the church. While we are still several years away from achieving that goal, we are moving in that direction.”

Hutt says the reaction from groups that rent the space has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

One of the satisfied customers is Urban Angels Acting Workshop. The group uses Houghton Hall for such activities as relaxation, sensory work, improvisation and monologues. “Urban Angels Acting Workshop found a home when Houghton Hall was just starting out,” founder Karen Giordano said. “It’s a welcoming and community-minded, creative space for artists.”

The ties to the theater community are not only practical, considering the church’s location in New York City, but also consistent with the church’s theological tradition and mission. The rehearsal space is named for the church’s first rector, Dr. George Houghton, who was among the first clergy in New York City willing to do funerals for actors.

The church’s website recounts the history that cemented its ties to the theater community:

A few days before Christmas in 1870, Joseph Jefferson, an actor renowned for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle, approached the rector of the now-defunct Church of the Atonement to request a funeral for his friend and fellow actor, George Holland. Upon learning that the deceased was an actor, the rector refused to hold a funeral for the man in his church. Joseph Jefferson persisted, and asked if there was a church in the area that would hold services for his friend. The rector said, “I believe there is a little church around the corner where it might be done.”

That “little church” was Church of the Transfiguration. (“Little Church” remains its nickname, to this day.)

“The church has had a long history with the theatre community, so this new use for our rental space is a great fit,” Hutt said.

While the arrangement is mutually beneficial for the community and the church, it is more than a matter of convenience; the space is, after all, owned by a church.

“The secondary goal is to strengthen the ties that the church has long had with the theatre community, and we are seeing results from that, as well, including a marriage and a baptism from among our users,” Hutt said. “Although Houghton Hall is not a church outreach program per se, we do think that those in the theatre community who may be seeking a spiritual home would find Transfiguration to be a very welcoming, inclusive, supportive place.”

This story is part of Lake Institute’s story collection, the Faithful Generosity Story Shelf, which highlights congregations and other religious organizations who have sought to use their assets and resources in creative—and sometimes surprising—ways as an expression of faithful giving.

Each entry in our Story Shelf is short enough to be read and discussed during a committee meeting or other group gathering. Our hope is that these accessible vignettes will spark new questions, conversation, and imagination among clergy and laity about what might be possible with the funds, buildings, land, and other resources in their care. If you know a story that should be included in the Story Shelf, suggest it here.


DATE: April 25, 2024
TOPIC: Organizational Leadership
TYPE: Story/Case Study
SOURCE: Faithful Generosity Story Shelf, Sharing Property
KEYWORDS: Property
AUTHOR: Dan Holly