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BUSINESS MONDAY: Spotlight on The Home Historian—turning a passion into a profession

Journalist Joe Durwin of Pittsfield has created a service that explores a property's past, an outgrowth of his lifelong interest in Berkshire history.

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Joe Durwin of Pittsfield operates a service in which he unearths and conveys the stories of properties in Berkshire County and surrounding areas.

Durwin launched The Home Historian in late 2020, serving clients throughout Berkshire County and in adjacent regions. He estimates that he has conducted at least 400 investigations into the history of houses and other properties since then. “I describe what I do as a combination of research and private detective work,” Durwin says.

Joe Durwin, creator of a business researching properties throughout the Berkshires to unearth their history. Photo courtesy Joe Durwin

The nature of his clients and the reasons they retain his services vary. He estimates about 60 percent of his work is for the owners of single-family residential homes. He also conducts research on commercial or institutional structures and properties for businesses, non-profit organizations, and other entities. “Some people are simply curious about the history of their home,” he comments. “Others have it done as a gift, such as people who grew up in a home and want to give a history of it to their parents. I also work for people who have bought a home and want to know about its past.”

People have practical reasons, too, such as when people are selling their home and want to describe its history as a way of increasing its appeal to buyers. “I’ve also been contacted by an increasing number of real estate professionals to help market properties they represent,” Durwin shares.

Businesses retain him to discover the past record of their sites. For example, he says, an inn can build its brand and add interest for potential guests. “And it connects a business located in an older building to the history of the community,” he adds.

Other clients come to Durwin for more specific motives, including satisfying legal requirements. He explains that historical information is typically required during the review of a permit to modify or demolish structures over a certain age. The historical account may also help establish a property’s chain of title. In other instances, drawing or changing property boundaries might require documenting past ownership and transactions. In addition, knowing a structure’s physical history can help guide repairs, remodeling, or other types of work to ensure they are mechanically or structurally compatible or for historic accuracy in restorations.

Durwin’s business is an outgrowth of his lifelong interest in local history—his familial roots in the Berkshires extend back to 1760. “I became interested in history as a child, and that’s stayed with me,” he recalls. He describes moving to Arizona during his twenties and returning to the Berkshires in 2008. Since then, he has been active in various issues and cultural initiatives, including the revitalization of Springside Park in Pittsfield.

Joe Durwin on the steps of the Berkshire Courthouse leading a historic tour. Photo courtesy Joe Durwin

His experience reporting for local publications and websites also feeds into his current role, and he still writes a regular column on history for the Berkshire Eagle. “As a journalist, I became very aware of the importance of context,” Durwin notes. “When covering a story, I did a lot of background research. That gave me an appreciation of the connection of contemporary life with history. There’s a symmetry between present-day events and what happened in the past.”

Durwin’s passion spills over into his personal life. He investigates history both as a hobby and in connection with other activities, giving presentations and leading historical tours. Through a related venture, These Mysterious Hills, he offers talks and tours on local scandals, crimes, and mysterious phenomena.

In late 2020, while working for an arts organization, Durwin decided to develop a business doing historical property research. “When the COVID pandemic occurred, the arts basically shut down and I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands,” he shares. “I previously had done research on specific properties informally for friends and family members, so I decided to try offering historical research as a paid service, and it took off from there.”

Durwin notes that he was able to transition smoothly because of his prior experience and the availability of local resources. “The knowledge I already have about local history is an advantage that helps establish a historical context for properties,” he states. “We are fortunate in the Berkshires to have excellent sources for historical information among libraries such as the Berkshire Athenaeum and organizations like the Berkshire County Historical Society at Arrowhead.”

According to Durwin, the rates for The Home Historian depend on several factors, including the nature of the report, the age and complexity of a property’s history, and the specific tasks and time required. In addition to printed factual and narrative reports, he offers other presentation options, such as books, pamphlets, or videos.

One of numerous sample historical profiles available for download on the website. Courtesy Joe Durwin

“It can take many forms, but I offer two basic options when initially discussing a job,” he explains. “For people who have a specific technical purpose, I can do ‘just the facts’ research, which focuses solely on things like the age of the house and chronology of owners. A more comprehensive option fleshes out the story of a property and the human side in terms of the lives of owners and events that happened there.”

Durwin says he gives a flat quote at the beginning that is the final cost. “Based on my experience, I generally know how many hours it will take before I start,” he comments. “If I quote $250, that’s what it will cost. If I get curious and decide to do more research on my own, that’s on me.” He says house reports range from about $150 up to $900. Large land parcels or commercial sites usually cost more. The fee also depends on the property’s age and location. (Click here to submit on online inquiry.)

As Durwin explains, his starting point is to assemble the information already known about the house. He then goes to public sources to trace deeds and locate building permits and other records. He also looks at maps. This helps to determine facts such as ownership at different times and when a house or other structure was built.

He notes that assembling the basic chronology is usually more straightforward for houses built after the late 19th century, where the official recorded information is clear and complete. However, in other cases, there may be gaps or questions, especially when a property dates back to earlier eras when records were less clear and building permits were not required. “Then you really have to get into the nitty gritty and start going back and forth to compare deeds, maps, and other sources to find out when the structure first appeared,” he says. “It may require using a combination of sources to estimate it down to a date.”

One such method of narrowing that down, he explains, is to compare two maps made at different periods; for example, a structure may show up in a later map but not the earlier version. “Another clue is when assessments show a low value for a site, but there is a significant jump in a subsequent one,“ he says, adding, “There’s a good chance that indicates a structure was built on it during that time.”

Durwin points to still other techniques, such as identifying the construction methods and style, tracing the history of a neighborhood’s development, and comparing the home to nearby structures. “For example, details like the kinds of nails can help to identify its age,” he says. “I love crawling around in attics and cellars. I can also turn to experts with technical knowledge, if necessary.” He adds that he has been able to estimate the date of construction for 90 percent of the properties he has researched within about six months.

To create more comprehensive narrative histories, Durwin says he uses various techniques and sources, including newspaper archives and local history books. He will also search for vital statistics about the births, deaths, marriages, and other life events of owners and occupants and their families. He might contact former residents or their descendants to gain information and recollections as well.

“There are similarities to doing composite biographies and family histories,” he states. “I also look for what happened with people who grew up in a home and what they did later in life. That can lead to interesting stories.”

A sample report with archival photos and maps, just some of Durwin’s sources. Courtesy Joe Durwin

In his words, Durwin will go beyond facts about daily life in a home across different periods by seeking out notable events in the community. He cites a particularly unusual occurrence he discovered while researching an older house in Williamstown. “Around the time of the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, an international conference at Williams College was attended by diplomats, prime ministers, and other prominent leaders and thinkers from the United States and Europe,” he explains. “It turns out that a tea and piano recital was held in this house as a related social event. It was a surprise to discover that such a gathering of international leaders had taken place in the parlor.”

He has also investigated properties with darker chapters involving scandals or unsolved crimes. Durwin concludes that the history of properties is a source of interest on many levels. “People really appreciate learning about the past generations that lived in their home, and how that connects with their own lives today.”

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