“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:
- Route 128
- The Burlington Mall
- 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.”
- Route 128 is green
- Middlesex Turnpike is blue
- Burlington Mall Road is red
Other pits operated along Middlesex Turnpike, including the future site of the Middlesex Commons shopping center:
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.”
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:
- A tricky triangular junction of Stony Brook Road and South Bedford Street.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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
- 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.
In the fall of 1968, the Mall Road opened for
Meanwhile, New England Executive Park was well underway. The long straightaway is now District Ave.
Behold Burlington’s skyscraper in this ad for Middlesex Bank, the original tenant. The background is fake. We don’t have triple-decker houses.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Meet the mall man
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.