Rotch-Duff-Jones House and Garden Museum: A community address

By Steven Froias

Writer-at-large for #NBcreative

In a recent conversation with a friend, she told me how much she enjoyed taking advantage of working on the porch of the Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden Museum during the pandemic. RJD – sensing the need for people to escape from their homes – offered up free wi-fi and seating and my pal was all too happy to take advantage of it.

So were her kids, who, she told me, now refer to the beautiful gardens at RJD as “their backyard.”

It’s an anecdote that Dawn E. Salerno, Executive Director of RJD, says she loves to hear. Because being an integral part of people’s lives in the city is very much a matter of design rather than happenstance. 

This February, 2023 marks five years since Dawn Salerno assumed the role of Executive Director of RJD. When she was hired, she remembered, the Board of Directors of the non-profit stressed that they wanted the property to be an active presence in the community. It’s a mission she accepted with alacrity. 

Salerno notes that the property at 396 County Street that would become the Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden Museum did it right from the beginning. It grew in sustainable steps, building out the building itself – careful renovation by careful renovation – while building a strong donor base and thoughtful board and staff. RJD is, she says, “built on strong shoulders.” 

That’s why today it can provide respite from a pandemic, if necessary, while also hosting more weddings than ever each year, special community events such as the BuyBlackNB pop-up market, and a full slate of activities – even during the depth of winter. 

By happy coincidence, Salerno’s five year anniversary in February also sees the launch of a new feature at RJD: A “Behind the Scenes” series of tours and talks during New Bedford’s AHA! Nights from February through May. 

It kicks off Thursday, February 9, with a tour of the laundry room and summer kitchen, which are located in the lower level of the Museum. Visitors will see the spaces as they are now as well as historic photos of both areas during the Duff era (1936 – 1981) of the house. (Additional details and ticket information for all the events referenced in this post is shared below.) 

The new series arises from interviews and a survey conducted as part of a strategic planning review conducted by RJD, Salerno explains. “We’re really responding to public demand; it’s what people are asking for.” 

February also features another one of RJD’s exquisite “parlor concerts.” On Sunday, February 12 Musicians Michelle Gordon and Austin Burns will perform in  a “Valentine’s Concert” of love songs. 

On Wednesday, February 15, another special event gets to the very heart of RJD’s meaning in and for the community. The virtual lecture, “Finding the Spark to Light the Fire,” with independent museum consultant Dr. Katina Fontes will discuss the benefits of expanding stories at historic sites such as the Museum.

Press material states: Currently, many historic sites are digging deeper into their archives to tell more diverse and inclusive stories. At the same time, visitors and donors with deep connections to the dominant narratives of these sites wonder, “Why are you ‘canceling’ the history that I love?” They also question the value of presenting history from different perspectives and experiences.  During this talk, Dr. Fontes will discuss the benefits of expanding stories at historic sites and share some of her program design experiences at The Wayside Inn in Sudbury, MA.

It’s obvious that the Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden Museum staff and directors have been asking themselves those questions in recent years, and have found the spark to light the fire at this unique community resource. 

As Dawn Salerno says, she wants everyone who peers behind the fence of RJD to know that it’s a place that they can be part of in this city. 

Very much like their own backyard. 


SUNDAY, FEB. 12: A Valentine’s Day Concert – Love Songs at the Rotch-Jones-Duff House: 

Tickets cost $10 for RJD Museum members and $15 for non-members, and advance registration is recommended. Couples may reserve a sweetheart table for $50. The flat fee includes two concert tickets, flowers and chocolates. General seating and Sweetheart Tables are limited, and early arrival is recommended for the best seat selection. Tickets may be purchased by calling the Museum at 508-997-1401 or visiting the Museum’s website, 

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 15: Virtual Lecture –  Finding the Spark to Light the Fire:  There is a suggested donation of $10 in lieu of a ticket fee for this lecture. These donations may be made at the Museum’s website, This virtual presentation requires pre-registration at  Audience members must sign up with an email address to receive a ZOOM code. 

FEBRUARY THROUGH MAY, 2023: Behind the Scenes at the Rotch-Jones-Duff House:  On Thursday, February 9, with a tour of the laundry room and summer kitchen, which are located in the lower level of the Museum. Visitors will see the spaces as they are now as well as historic photos of both areas during the Duff era (1936 – 1981).

On Thursday, March 9, visitors will have the rare opportunity to tour the third floor of the Museum. During the Jones residency (1851 – 1935), the attic housed the domestic staff, and the cupola was added to provide a spectacular view of the harbor.

On Thursday, April 13, Manager of Collections and Interpretation Lauren Prescott will give a talk about undergarments from the collection in a presentation entitled “Under Where?”

The series will conclude on Thursday, May 11, when RJD’s Lauren Prescott presents some of the more unusual and surprising items in the Museum collection, discussing how objects end up at museums.

The programs run from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. during AHA! Nights, the 2nd Thursday of each month. Visitors may drop in at any time. Admission is free during AHA! Nights, and no registration is necessary. 

About The Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden Museum

The historic house, now the site of The Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden Museum, was built in 1834 for whaling merchant William Rotch Jr. This Greek Revival mansion, located on a full city block of formal gardens, is a National Historic Landmark, one of only 2,500 in the nation. The period rooms of the house chronicle 150 years of the economic and social evolution of the City of New Bedford, as reflected in the residencies of the Rotch, Jones, and Duff families and their domestic staff.

The Museum is located at 396 County Street, New Bedford. It is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Advance booking for admission is encouraged, but not required.  Admission is $8 for adults; $6 for AAA members, seniors and students; and $3 for children (age 7–17). The Museum is free for RJD members and EBT card-holders. The RJD gardens are open to the public at no cost and available to visit from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. Visitors are urged to go to to book their Museum visit and to review the most current information on hours and programs.

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