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The Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum

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by Sara Zatir

Stepping back in time might seem to be the stuff of movies and lore. However, when given the opportunity to visit the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum you will be engulfed by the history and culture of New Bedford in the 19th century. Located at 396 County Street, the Rotch-Jones-Duff House (RJDH) displays Greek Revival architecture and occupies an entire city block.

As the only whaling mansion still open to the public in New England to retain its original design, the RJDH stands as a reminder of New Bedford’s rich history in trade, commerce, and culture-especially through its historical whaling industry. In 1981, the Waterfront Historic Area LeaguE (WHALE) purchased the RJDH to save it from commercial development. In 1983 the house and gardens became a museum dedicated to preservation and education of the National Historic Landmark.

The Families
Built in 1834, William Rotch, Jr. and his family were the first of the three families to live in the House. As one of New Bedford’s most influential townsmen and entrepreneurs, Rotch was involved in the foundation of many establishments, including the New Bedford Institute for Saving, Friends Academy, and the New Bedford Horticultural Center. In addition, from the late 1770’s and onward, the Rotch family owned and built whaling vessels, transported whale oils and other goods, owned wharfs and storehouses in New Bedford and Nantucket, and so much more!

rotch jones duff new bedford guideThe second family to own the House was the Jones family. Bought in 1851 by Edward Coffin Jones, the Jones family had a fulfilling and lengthy life there. Jones moved to the RJDH with his second wife, Emma Nye Chambers Jones, and their three daughters; a fourth daughter soon followed after moving into the mansion. Starting as a mere clerk, Jones invested in whaling vessels and eventually became an agent and owned sixteen whaling ships.

Life, however, was not always easy for the Jones family. Within a year of moving into the house both Jones’ wife and oldest daughter died of scarlet fever. He continued to raise his three young daughters, and his daughter, Amelia, continued to live in the House for 85 years. Amelia Jones was also an integral part of the New Bedford community, taking part in different philanthropic charities until her death in 1935.

The last family to live in the House was the Duff family starting in 1936. Mark M. Duff bought the mansion, and also became an important part of the New Bedford community. Duff was a leading businessman owning  not only his own business, but mandating many others as well. Duff and his wife redecorated the House and gardens when they purchased it, the restorations are evident in the current bathrooms and wall treatments. The Duff tenure ended in 1981, and henceforth the House was converted into the museum.

The Gardens

rjdh gardens new bedford guide
The gardens at the Rotch-Jones-Duff House.

Each family had their own special influence over the gardens. Even though there are no documented garden plans, the Rotch family did have ornamental gardens. Seeing as Mr. Rotch was a founding member of the Horticultural society, with the assistance of his Irish gardener William Howard, his garden consisted of fruits, vegetables, and flowers.

The current landscape is more closely aligned with the Jones’ plot. With a Victorian flair, the gardens retain some of the original décor, including a pergola. Photographs from the 19th century showcase the pergola laden with vines, wisteria, varieties of roses, and many more. Also, the Duff family influence is evident throughout the garden design. The Duff family hired a Bostonian landscape architect by the name of Mrs. John Coolidge, and she revitalized the garden with ornamental beds, reflecting pools, and graceful walkways.

The gardens today are a fine mix of all three generations including different specimens from each. This award winning garden serves for many occasions including education purposes, weddings, summer concerts, etc.

Visiting the House and Other Opportunities

The Rotch Jones Duff House is open Monday-Saturday, 10:00 A.M.-4:00 P.M. and Sunday from noon-4:00 P.M. It is also open the second Thursday evening of each month free of charge. Rates for admission and information on tours can be found on their website or by calling (508) 997-1401.

The RJDH also has many programs and events open to the public, including the Fourth Grade Woodland Garden Program, which introduces students to the nature of flowers and includes many topics on the environment, habitat, and plant life cycles; The Fifth Grade Apiary Program, which educates children on the importance of the honey bee; and the History Program for Fifth Graders that educates children on 19th century New Bedford. More information on these programs, future events, and volunteer work can be found on their website.

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6 comments

  1. I am not from New Bedford, and normally I wouldn’t even think of visting a place like this, but now i really want to! This article was so well written, and it put the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum, on the top of my “places to visit” list!

  2. This article is great! The places sound interesting.

  3. I love how there is so much history behind this house, after reading this article I want to actually go there and take a visit myself. I want to walk through a house that has been around for over a hundred years! There are probably so many hidden doorways. The garden looks beautiful, I definitely want to go there soon!

  4. This is so interesting! I would love to go see it someday. I never knew it even existed! I’m so glad i read this article. 🙂

  5. Dear Miss Zahir:

    I’ve only just read with some interest your article from 2011 on the Rotch-Jones-Duff House on County Street in New Bedford, Mass.

    Though interesting, you leave out a vital part of the house’s personal history.

    Upon the death of Edward Coffin Jones’s second wife, he married Mary Coffin Luce of this city, She was my Great Grandmother’s first cousin and is pictured in the porch photograph you include in your article. It was she (along with stepdaughter Amelia Hickling Jones) who lived on at the house after her husband’s death (1880) into the 20th century and was as much a mother to her stepdaughters as their own would have been.

    Mary Coffin (née Luce) Jones was a daughter of Matthew Luce (originally of Vineyard Haven/Holmes Hole, Martha’s Vineyard) and Hepsa Coffin of this City. A portrait of Hepsa Coffin Luce hangs at the RJD House and Garden Museum in the central hallway of the first floor of the main house. With Mary Coffin (Luce) Jones in that porch photo is, I suspect, her stepdaughter Amelia Hickling Jones. How Edward Coffin Jones’ third wife’s near- fifty year occupancy during and post her husband’s death (Edward died in 1880 and his second wife in 1917) and devotion to his children and the maintenance of the house could be forgotten or simply eliminated in your article is a source of some disappointment to me since she, Mary Coffin (Luce) Jones, was the matriarch of the house longer than any other woman while the house was held in private hands. It was she who was responsible for the formal gardens as we see them today.

    To see a photo of her and her stepdaughter, all one need do is Google “Mary Coffin Luce Jones New Bedford”. The photo is one I donated to the house museum and it’s featured in Google images. Additionally, to see more information about this woman go to the Find-a-Grave site on the internet and enter the name Mary Coffin Luce Jones. My own Grandmother Perkins spent many happy summers as a young girl at the RJD House, and when my grandparents house was broken up, I donated a leather traveling trunk beautifully hand-tooled and with the brass nameplate “Ed. C. Jones, New Bedford”. Last I knew it was still on display in an upstairs bedroom.

    Sincerely, Richard Bradford Hall

  6. Forgive me. I inadvertently called Mary Coffin (Luce) Jones, Edward C. Jones’ “second” wife in one part of my last post. She was his third wife.

    Too, the identification of the subjects on the circa 1900 photo of the porch should be inverted: Facing left is Mary (Luce) Jones (in mourning black) and to the right facing is her stepdaughter Amelia Hickling Jones.

    Richard Bradford Hall

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