Skip to content

Burlington 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 simply IS the 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.” 

Acme Sand & Gravel, Burlington MA

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

Acme Sand & Gravel color coded

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.”

Teenagers fished and skinny-dipped in the bigger pools, especially one sandwiched between Route 128 and a patch of trees. Skinny-dipping ended when snapping turtles started to populate the water.

Mall developer Joseph Meyerhoff of Baltimore grabbed the Acme property in the mid 1960s. Why that location? Basic math. 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.”

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 offices, but it was pared to one. A really tall 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 custom garage/shed business called Gilbilt Lumber, which had a crescent-shaped display 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 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 will survive 50 years: Ann Taylor and, amazingly, Spencer’s Gifts! Yes, fake vomit and rubber chickens still move the needle in Burlington 50 years later.

Here’s a shot of the parking lot on 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.

75E7FCD2-BCCC-4F73-89BD-95361352E713

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

Burlington Mall fountain

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.

img048

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 under a totally different name.

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 semester 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

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

New England Executive Park under construction, Burlington MA
New England Executive Park under construction

 

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)

The big bang

Suddenly this Mall Road, a humble, single-purpose bypass road to a shopping mall, had hit a tipping point. 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. Here’s the architect’s rendering.

Lahey Clinic rendering, Burlington MA

Lahey threw its support behind the idea of a big hotel nearby. This eventually led to the Burlington Marriott. Quite a departure from the 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).

Myriad other businesses snapped up the remaining plots, and the mall grew a second floor in 1988, 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?

Postscript

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

Spruce at 3 Dennis Drive

27 thoughts on “Burlington 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. I remember my mother writing to my Grandmother about the mall. I spent many of my teenage years there. Great recap. Thank you.

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

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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

  7. 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!

  8. 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

  9. 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.

  10. 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

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

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

Leave a Reply