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Burlington Mall Turns 50

Burlington Mall sign
Mall marquee pranked in 1974

“People live in Burlington? All I know is the mall.” You’ve heard that before, from people who live fairly close to Burlington and probably should know better. Alas, their knowledge is limited to Burlington’s Big Three:

  1. Route 128
  2. The Burlington Mall
  3. Traffic caused by 1 and 2

If we briefly allow that Burlington is nothing more than its mall, then Burlington turns 50 this year. Yes, Burlington was born July 29, 1968 at 9:30 a.m., when Ed Gaffey of Mill Street walked into Sears in search of some silver paint for his shed roof. A clerk told him he was the first Burlington Mall customer.

Before the mall

Muck. Sand. Debris. Dump trucks. And the Vine Brook. That was the scene at Acme Sand & Gravel, the Middlesex Turnpike fixture that preceded the mall. Everyone called the area “the sand pits” or simply “the pits.” The property did have a certain fun factor, however, hosting dune buggies, horseback riding and even skinny-dipping — until snapping turtles started to show up.

Acme Sand & Gravel, Burlington MA

  • Route 128 is green
  • Middlesex Turnpike is blue
  • Burlington Mall Road is red

Acme Sand & Gravel color coded

Max Ruggiero on the Turnpike
Max Ruggiero on the Turnpike in 1953. His father, Anthony, owned Acme Sand & Gravel. Photo credit: Emily Ruggiero

Other pits operated along Middlesex Turnpike, including the future site of the Middlesex Commons shopping center:

The pits before Middlesex Commons, Burlington MA early 1960s
William Rowe of Muller Road braves the pits that preceded Middlesex Commons. That’s Middlesex Turnpike in the background. Photo credit: Allan Rowe, circa 1963.

For Ted Thomas Martin, whose childhood home was on Lexington St., the Acme sand pits offered adventure. “I used to trek through the woods, usually alone, to those sand pits, to look for polliwogs in the small wells there.” He tiptoed across rows of supine refrigerators that served as boardwalks over the wettest stretches, and he ducked into huts made of cement blocks. His mother was not pleased with these adventures. “When my brother got polio, my mother used to say he got it from the pits. I think this was a scare tactic. I don’t think even he believed that.”

Mall developer Joseph Meyerhoff of Baltimore sent a scout to this area in the mid-1960s. He reported ideal conditions for a shopping center. A big one. The area population was growing super-fast, the retail choices were lagging, and the property was cheap. “Burlington Mall was designed to be the most beautiful shopping place in New England,” J.H. Pearlstone, a VP at Meyerhoff, told the press. “In our 19 years in the development of shopping centers, we have learned a great deal about the planning and operation of centers this size and we have endowed Burlington with the total benefit of that experience.”

This would be the largest enclosed mall in New England, period. Shopper’s World in Framingham predated the Burlington Mall by some 15 years, but it wasn’t enclosed.

Burlington Mall scale model

Burlington Mall artist concept

While mall construction began, Spaulding & Slye pitched the town on New England Executive Park next door. The original plan called for three high-rise office buildings, but it was pared to one.


The case for a new road

The developers and the town wisely foresaw a potential traffic disaster for Route 128 and Burlington’s main roads like Terrace Hall Ave. and Lexington Street. The best solution was a straight shot from Cambridge Street to the Turnpike, to be called simply “Burlington Mall Road.” Nothing was in the way except:

  1. A tricky triangular junction of Stony Brook Road and South Bedford Street.
  2. The remains of a construction business called Gilbilt Lumber, which had a crescent-shaped display of garages, sheds and A-frame homes on Cambridge Street right where the Mall Road would later begin. Here’s a “then and now” pairing with the Gilbilt display visible. The Mall Road goes off to the right.


Gilbilt Lumber ad 1956 Burlington MA. Company named after Nashua-based home-builder Len Gilman
Gilbilt Lumber ad 1956
A-Frame house on diplay at Gilbilt Lumber, Burlington
Part of the Gilbilt display displaced by Burlington Mall Road.

A fat stripe of land needed to be re-zoned to create this new road, described as “largely parallel with Route 128.” Here’s the notice to the townspeople, with a hand-drawn map as a visual aid.


And here’s the construction of Mall Road, seen from the brand new 128 South off-ramp at Cambridge St. The ramp didn’t yet exist in the black and white aerial above.

Mall Road construction 2

Here’s the same intersection later (highway off-ramp on the right, Mall Road off-camera to the left). Cambridge Street was getting the finishing touch, a median strip. The Mall Road cost Joseph Meyerhoff and Spaulding & Slye about $400,000 total.

Cambridge St. median strip at Mall Road

Mall Road culvert over Vine Brook (near the future Lahey Clinic) 1968
Mall Road culvert over Vine Brook (near the future Lahey Clinic) 1968

At the other end of the road, the mall was taking shape, and the town began singing its praises.

The doors open

Here’s the mall just before its grand opening. It didn’t have a second floor beyond the walls of its anchor stores, but it did have a two-screen movie theater and a Stop & Shop supermarket. The Lowell Sun described it thus: “Stores in the mall represent virtually every consumer category and comprise the largest selection of merchandise and services ever assembled under one roof in New England.”

Notice the original store lineup in this debut ad. Pretend not to notice the water stain.

Burlington Mal grand opening ad

Burlington Mall floor plan Burlington MA. Photo credit: Alan Brodie

With Sears closing in April, this means only two original Burlington Mall stores are still there after 50 years: Ann Taylor and, amazingly, Spencer’s Gifts! Yes, pop culture and plastic vomit still move the needle in Burlington 50 years later.

Here’s grand opening day. An estimated 200,000 people passed through the place on day one, putting immense strain on the 6,000 parking spaces. Police blocked the entrances with “full” signs twice over the course of the day.


Burlington Mall opening day 1968 Burlington MA. Photo credit: Bedford Minuteman via Alethea Yates

Burlington Mall fountain

Burlington Mall, 1970, Burlington, mA

Burlington Mall, 1970 (other direction)

Burlington Mall postcard 1968, Burlington MA
Burlington Mall postcard 1968

The side-by-side movie theaters made for interesting double-features. Someone apparently had a sense of humor.

Jaws/Bambi double-bill, Burlington MA

A new venue

Right away, the mall became the town’s cultural convention center. Here are the very first mall events. First, a mural presented by a Union School student.

Gillian Dent, now retired, grew up at 3 Dennis Drive. “The art teacher wanted us to do a picture of an escalator because there was no such thing in Burlington at the time. Eight kids each painted a person on the escalator. Mine was the girl with the ice cream cone. At the time Brigham’s and Friendly Ice Cream were in the mall.” A few weeks later, when the mall held an Earth Day event, she received a tiny spruce sapling and planted it in her front yard. Hold that thought until the very end of this article.

Here’s another early mall event:

The event here is unclear. These women (sisters?) are at Sears. The one with the mouse ears is Sandee Dodge, according to her name tag.


A photo op for pols, business leaders and townies:

"The managers" photo, Burlington Mall
Attorney Thomas Murphy Sr., Mall Manager Hugh Gioacchini, Burlington developer/politician Robert W. Murray, Burlington assessor Elmer Morrison, state Rep. Ron MacKenzie, an unknown mall representative, Ted Ferguson, Richard Tarpy. Morrison surveyed the mall and asked a Lowell Sun reporter, “Would you believe this is Burlington?”

Burlington Mall manager Hugh Gioacchini and a woman identified as “Mrs. James Robinson,” president of the Burlington Garden Club, having a conversation allegedly about plants. But something about the body language suggests it’s going astray.

Mall manager Hugh Gioacchini

The Miss Burlington pageant of 1968 tied in with the new mall. Here is Miss Burlington herself, Shirley Capecci, at the mall’s grand opening car show. It was her first and last modeling gig. She’s now a San Diego lawyer by the name Shirli Weiss.

The Miss Burlington competition was open to anyone, not just Burlington residents. Capecci lived in East Boston but entered the Burlington contest for the generous prizes:

  • $250 cash, which Capecci used to pay for an entire year at UMass
  • $250 scholarship to the Powers modeling school, which she gave away
  • Tiara
  • Oil portrait
  • Perfume and spray cologne
  • A shot at the Miss Massachusetts title
  • The runner-up got a $50 savings bond

Contestants competed in three categories: talent, swimsuit and evening gown. Capecci danced to the Pink Panther theme. The experience had a positive impact on Miss Burlington. “It really built my confidence, helped me lose my East Boston accent and become comfortable speaking before crowds. It was a great experience. I went on to college, law school, and I’ve been practicing law for 40 years. The mall opening was a big event and everyone seemed happy about it. People were welcoming and friendly to me even though I did not live in Burlington. The prize included a large portrait of me in my evening gown, which I still have in Boston. It’s a fond memory. I always thought Burlington was and is a great New England town.”

Here are the contestants. If Janice Galvin had won, her tiara might still be missing to this day, lost in the darkness.

Miss Burlington contestants, 1968

In the fall of 1968, the Mall Road opened for traffic cars.

Burlington Mall Road ribbon-cutting ceremony
Burlington Mall Road ribbon-cutting. Read the accompanying press release for IDs.
Burlington Mall Road on day one, Nov. 26, 1968
Burlington Mall Road on day one, Nov. 26, 1968. Notice the lack of, well, ANYTHING flanking the road. Remember, it was supposed to be a mere driveway to the mall, nothing more.

Meanwhile, New England Executive Park was well underway. The long straightaway is now District Ave.

Here’s a party at N.E. Executive Park c. 1970, featuring a stack of pallets as a buffet table and parking lot islands as dining furniture. The uphill slope on the left side of the first photo leads to the future Lahey Clinic site.


The mall’s first winter was ugly. The roof collapsed under the weight of snow. A call went out to volunteers to help shovel snow off the roof.

Behold Burlington’s skyscraper in this ad for Middlesex Bank, the original tenant. The background is fake. We don’t have triple-decker houses.

Middlesex Bank with Boston behind

These horses were in town for Circus Vargas, which set up in the mall parking lot. They’re grazing along what is now District Avenue.

Horses grazing on District Ave

BURLINGTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 10: The Circus Vargas, one of the nation's largest tent shows, prepares for week-long stand at Burlington Mall, Sept. 10, 1974. (Photo by Ted Dully/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Circus Vargas, one of the nation’s largest tent shows, prepares for week-long stand at Burlington Mall, Sept. 10, 1974. (Photo by Ted Dully/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Burlington Mall aerial early 1970s
Early 1970s
Burlington Mall 1978
Lauriat's bookstore, Burlington Mall 1978

The big bang

The success of this mall begat smaller malls, all of them since “de-malled.” First, the so-called “Caldor Mall,” which was walking-distance from the Burlington Mall and is now the Middlesex Commons plaza, containing a Market Basket and Old Navy.

Then came the Billerica Mall:

Billerica Mall grand opening

Billerica Mall interior

And then the Woburn Mall in 1977:

Woburn Mall grand opening 1977
Look between the two women standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front. Notice the disembodied plaid pants? They belonged to City Councilor Paul Meaney, who was running for re-election at the time. According to his son, the Times had a policy against running photos of candidates up for re-election, so the Times photo staff had to remove him — without any modern photo software. They did a pretty good job, except they forgot to remove his pants.


The Yellow Brick Road

Suddenly this Mall Road, a humble, single-purpose bypass road to a shopping mall, held great promise. Everyone wanted to build on it or near it. In 1973, a patch of Vine Brook marsh off Meadow Road, near the WRKO towers, was turned into Vinebrook Plaza, whose oft-flooded parking lot still hosts geese and ducks who don’t seem to mind the asphalt flooring.


The town’s doorbell rang again. This time it was Lahey Clinic, looking to shed its original Kenmore Square location:

original Lahey Clinic Kenmore Square Boston

Here’s the architect’s rendering of the Burlington Lahey Clinic, just uphill from New England Executive Park:

Lahey Clinic rendering, Burlington MA

Lahey threw its support behind the idea of a big hotel nearby, to take in visiting doctors and patients’ families. This eventually led to the Burlington Marriott, quite a departure from the tired Howard Johnson Motor Lodge on the Turnpike. Here’s the original Marriott ad.

Burlington Marriott

A furniture store opened at the bottom of the Mall Road, across from New England Executive Park. This gave birth to a plaza called “The Marketplace,” which had a Dandelion Green restaurant for many years. Its location is now a Chipotle.

Dandelion Green, Burlington MA

Across from the Vinebrook Plaza on Meadow Road, Bradlees came to town (now Kohl’s).


RJ Kelly developed much of the Burlington Mall Road opposite Lahey Clinic.

Executive Place Burlington, brand new

And the mall grew a second floor in 1988 (video), making the whole area a tax-generating machine — and, per the Big Three of Burlington that kicked off this article — a traffic-generating machine.

Burlington Mall sweeping shot 1968

Meet the mall man

John Hanron

John G. Hanron Sr. (1938-2014), the Burlington Mall’s original publicist, was also New England’s premier promoter of malls, the Don King of malls. The highest-quality photos in this article — the shots of the building itself, the first mall events, the Mall Road ribbon-cutting and the Rex Trailer montage you’ll see below — came from the long-lost files of this former Marine photojournalist.

His daughter, Karen Renee Hanron of Montpelier, VT., pictured, went to great lengths to get her father’s materials into the hands of Burlington Retro for this article. “My father was super-passionate about his work, and he shared his enthusiasm with my brother and me. He took us to every office and mall he worked, and introduced us to his colleagues and got us involved in the events. At one mall on an Easter weekend, he paid me to walk around in a large Easter bunny costume, handing out candy to the children. This was a six to eight-hour walk around the mall sporting a huge bunny head whose eye holes were way above my eye sockets. It’s to an unknown credit that I never tripped over a small child.”

He continued to work into his 70s even as he struggled with COPD in the last decade of his life. “I remember our last few phone calls before he was hospitalized for the final time. He was still working deals and making connections.”

Here’s a classic Hanron event: A Christmas visit from Santa Claus and Rex Trailer — by helicopter. Rex Trailer (1928-2013) was a New England celebrity, so this Santa arrival event was probably in New England. The stores in the background are JM Fields and Kaufman Carpet, both long defunct. Any educated guesses about the location here?



As the mall turns 50 this year, so does Gillian Dent’s little spruce sapling at 3 Dennis Drive.

Spruce at 3 Dennis Drive

47 thoughts on “Burlington Mall Turns 50 Leave a comment

  1. I’m sure that the spruce tree isn’t the only thing that has grown on 3 Dennis those houses sure weren’t that size in 1968.

  2. We use to play street hockey in the mall parking lot after hours in the late ’70’s to utilize the parking lot lights. Good times.

  3. I remember my mother writing to my Grandmother about the mall. I spent many of my teenage years there. Great recap. Thank you.

  4. My husband remembers late night drag racing in the mall parking lot, with an appreciative audience that included state policemen.

  5. Ugh! The Mall was dreadful from day 1, but if you lived here your economic future was chained to it and the mess that followed.

  6. I remember being at the Burlington Mall for the grand opening when Rex Trailer landed in the helicopter. Also remember watching fireworks there before the Mall was built. Good memories.

  7. We also watched the fireworks sitting on a mound of sand at the end of Lexington Street. Thank you for bringing back memories.

  8. In 1970 my father taught me to drive a standard in his ’67 Datsun Roadster on Sundays in the parking lot. The Mall was closed, of course. I got up to 4th gear by Jordan Marsh!

  9. gosh,you young folks…………….i remember hunting rabbits and fishing for trout in vine brook below woodwards general store…………the middlesex turnpike was a lonely dark road at night,spooky to ride a bike down,but usually safe,because there were so few cars……………and further on past the shawsheen bridge,there were several small hills in the road that named that part of it, roller coaster hill for those fifty fords………………….c,johnson, bhs,1954

  10. Is the “un-named man” in the polital, townie photo op for the mall, maybe Jack Kilmartin? He owned the Esso station downtown & lived next to the Murphys on Lexington Street.

  11. I remember so well when the BURLINGTON Mall opened. I was employed by Mitre just up the road and we finally had a place to go on our lunch 3/4 hour. What a treat. Also I remember Jordans or Filene’s Estes Lauder giving away goodie bags filled with samples of their products. What an introduction to better cosmetics than those offered at local drugstores. Still my favorite mall

  12. Very nice article, We moved to Burlington in 1949, where I started the first grade at Union school, it was pretty much fields and woods and of course the Sand pits; much later a school was built on or near, the south end of Lexington Street, on the right side heading toward Bedford, is that school still there, and it’s name? I appreciated the pics of the pits.

  13. Enjoyed this article. My family moved to Burlington in 1955, I started 1st grade at Memorial School and midterm moved to Wildwood School, which has been torn down, when it was built. I remember JM Fields but not sure where, Tewksbury? maybe.

  14. My first job at 16 years old. Maintenance man picking up cigarette butts in the mall in 1980.

  15. Thank you so much for taking the time to put this together so i could enjoy this trip down memory lane…

  16. I lived in Somerville and we loved to drive to Billerica via the roller coaster road that went under 128, there was very little of anything there except the Drive-In movie on the other side of 128. I knew of 2 different kids who were badly injured on that road that we sped late at night. Those trees would jump out on ya. Prior to the mall those pits were a place to discard anything that would not fit in a trash can. We would strip abandoned cars that were left there.

    I moved to Burlington in 1972, we loved it there with our 5 kids, we retired to Florida in 2002, but now we come back to the area every summer.

    • yes! My parents grew up in Billerica and used to ride the Middlesex Turnpike roller coaster and then turn back because “there was nothing in Burlington”.

  17. Years gone by my Grandmother and I would pick blueberries were the mall is. Blanchard Road was a single lane road with a hump in the middle. It was located on the other side of Rte 128. There was two house trailers there where My brother, sister and I grew up. Graduated from the old Burlington High in 1956 went in the service. Now living in Pahrump, Nevda. A town similar to Burlington.

  18. I was in Grade 5 at Center School in 67-68. I remember two of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Timmons and Mrs. Nicolazo joking that Almys was the only place to shop in town. I loved Almys and took mild offense! Who knew what the mall would bring?!

  19. Great walk down memory lane. Thanks for posting it.I remember when the Mall was exciting for Burlington…and yes, in many ways, put us on the map….I remember my parents going food shopping there…..

  20. Sad to see that there are no photos of the old restaurant in the top floor of Jordan Marsh. When I was a child, my parents and I were eating dinner there and the fire alarm sounded right as we were finishing up. Our server told us that once they get the all-clear we can come back in and pay our bill. I don’t think we did lol

  21. just after 128 was completed near the mall,you could look northward and see an old deserted farmhouse in the woods and fields………apparently on the old deserted Pattison road,from the Pattison farm on the middlesex tunpike to bedford

  22. Hello! Where did you find the photos of the mall directory? I am really interested in using them for an art project. Do you know who owns the copyrights?


    • The water-stained ad was in the basement of the town museum under a pile of other damaged documents. I can’t remember where the map came from.

  23. RWF…you deserve an award for sharing all this wonderful and “never to be forgotten” history of “Our Town”. Thank you!

  24. I grew up in Woburn and remember catching the bus at the corner of Dix Rd and Russell St to get to the mall in the early 70’s when we were just kids. My mother signed me up for sewing lessons at Singer-and just put me on the bus to get there. I took those classes for many years and they always ended a session with a fashion show in the mall-when all us students wore our creations. Great fun. I also remember going to many movies like Million Dollar Duck, Love story, etc at the cinemas. And there was a giant Stop and shop across from the cinema. There was a road leading up to it nicknamed Rubber Road-which was used for drag racing.

  25. Robert: Amazing research that triggers the brain into memories as I began a long and successful career as a journalist. As you requested, I will do some research and forward to you what’s appropriate. Let’s stay in touch.


  26. Re the 50 year – Spencer’s Gifts came and went – weren’t in the mall the whole time. I remember this because we were mad they closed it, in the early to mid 80s. I had just gotten old enough to go the mall by myself; I was not allowed to go in there when I was with my mom.

    I remember them building the “skyscraper”, we lived on Wheeler Road when I was young. Remember too AJ Felz Plumbing Supplies on Middlesex Turnpike, which became the Circuit City – not sure what it is now. Also remember them building the Holiday Inn. I learned to skate on the tiny pond behind Woodward’s Liquors. We used to walk down Blanchard Street and there were horses in the fields. One time Joe Green landed the BZ Copter in that field.

    I used to go with my parents to the mall, about 1971 or so – my dad would go the barber shop for a haircut (yes there was a barber shop), and then we’d go to Mr. Donut and wait for my mom, who was food shopping.

  27. Just found this site tonight. I worked in the Burlington Mall before, (during) and after the 2-story addition. Lots of memories working at American Eagle down near Brigham’s (and on a whim being a live mannequin with a co-worker in the store window on a slow day, that quickly became a busy day!), working (mostly) behind the scenes at the new Sharper Image store, and quite a few years at Eddie Bauer, then Brookstones! One memory that stands out is an evening when a snowstorm dumped more than was expected (and quicker than expected) so the Mall didn’t close early enough. By the time they closed, the traffic was at a standstill for miles around (and this was not the Blizzard of 78 – it was in the late 80’s.) It took over an hour just to get out of the parking lot with all of the traffic jammed at every corner!

    • I remember that storm in the late 80’s very well. My sister worked at the food court and I had to pick her up after work. The Mall was completely gridlocked. Fortunately I had a 4×4 Ford Bronco II and I was able to go over the snow bank and get out of there without waiting to get through the intersection on the Mall Rd. That Bronco was a mall terrain vehicle!

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