Seven miles north of Boston and only 15 minutes from North Station, Melrose offers a variety of urban resources, but it is clearly a deeply rooted, close-knit community. Small by almost any standard, the city of 28,000 occupying 4.76 square miles has a lot of civic resources in five grade schools and 15 churches. More than a few residents grew up here, moved away, and eventually returned to put down roots. One such resident says, “As a teenager, I couldn’t wait to leave. Now that I’m back, I can’t believe how much this town has to offer.”
Melrose was a rural part of Charlestown and Malden until 1845, when the Boston and Maine Railroad built three train stations here. Incorporated five years later, Melrose was one of the original “streetcar suburbs” established when new rail lines enabled the middle class to return home to a leafy neighborhood after a day’s work in the sooty metropolis. The new city of Melrose, named after a Scottish burgh, became a favorite home for railroad executives.
Today, it is still the city with lots of train transportation. Situated in a triangle formed by Routes 1, 128, and 93, Melrose is among the more accessible towns on the North Shore. But easy to reach does not mean frequently visited: Melrose is not on the way to anywhere, and no major highways pass through. To see Melrose, you have to go there. These days, there are more and more reasons to do just that.
One is a newly revitalized commercial Main Street featuring handsome late-19th-century mercantile buildings. “When I grew up here, we had an ice cream parlor on Main Street; that was it,” says Mayor Rob Dolan. Today’s shopping district boasts both simple and elegant eateries, chic boutiques, luxurious spas, and sophisticated art galleries, all in handsome Victorian structures. “Our Main Street escaped the ravages of 1960s urban renewal,” Dolan says. In 1982, all of downtown Melrose attained listings on the National Register of Historic Places.
The community also houses a grand collection of Victorian homes, which the Chamber of Commerce celebrates during the annual Victorian Fair. Usually on the third Sunday in September (this year’s is scheduled for September 11), the festival features an “artisan’s alley” on a section of Main Street closed to vehicular traffic.
Melrose finds plenty of reasons to turn that downtown stretch of pavement into a pedestrian-friendly fairground: December brings “Home for the Holidays,” a community-wide holiday celebration; May welcomes merchants who support the local PTOs during a street festival called “Melrose Gives Back,” and Halloween on Main Street is an annual tradition.
For all its urban charm, Melrose is surrounded by a network of long-established green space, thanks to Frederick Law Olmstead’s brilliant plan for Boston’s Emerald necklace and a forward-looking Melrose city government that resisted periodic temptation to develop its own open land. The city boasts steep hills with to-die-for views of Boston, the ocean, and Mount Wachusett. There are almost endless opportunities for hiking and cross-country skiing at Mount Hood and the eastern reaches of the Middlesex Fells Reservation. The city boasts a history as an Olympic training site, an early golf community, and two public 19-hole golf courses.
Centrally located Ell Pond, a kettle pond formed as the result of a passing ice age, is actually shaped like an L, and its inner corner is occupied by a city park. Here, on the first warm day of spring, Melrosians escape their classrooms, shops, and offices to kick off their shoes and relax. In many ways, this is the spirit of the place: a small city with the personality of a small town.
Date of Settlement: 1633
Date of Incorporation: 1850
Zip Codes: 02176, 02177
Total area: 4.8 square miles
Median household income: $62,811
Schools: 5 elementary schools, 1 middle school, and 1 high school; 1 private elementary school
Notable residents: Bill Rodgers, runner; Brooks Atkinson, journalist and author; Geraldine Farrar, Metropolitan Opera soprano and silent-film star; Frank Stella, contemporary painter, sculptor; David Souter, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court
Ample railway options keep Melrosians well connected.
Nineteenth-century americans did not travel far when they went on seasonal trips to the country; Beacon Hill Brahmins built farmhouses in Brookline, while Lynn industrialists went to Nahant for the summer. Boston railroad barons built their summer homes in Melrose, attracted by the lakes and hills, golfing and fishing, and the rail line. It was the best of both worlds—fresh air and country living within close range of the city.
These wealthy Victorians left grand Queen Anne and Colonial Revival houses in what are still some of Melrose’s nicest neighborhoods, particularly off Upham Street, on the east side. The other legacy these early residents left behind benefits an army of commuters: Melrose has more train stations than most communities under 30,000 residents.
The three train stops built during the 19th century are still very much in operation as the commuter rail stations at Wyoming Hill, Melrose/Cedar Park, and Melrose Highlands. Trains head northwest to Lowell and northeast to Rockport: much of the North Shore is accessible from here via public transportation. Plus, the Orange Line terminus at Oak Grove, on the Malden-Melrose town line, provides access to all of Boston, making Melrose a veritable mini-Hub on the North Shore.
ON THE TOWN
Some of Melrose’s best spots for eating, shopping, art viewing, and luxuriating.
Melrose Symphony Orchestra
The oldest continuing volunteer orchestra in the country celebrates its 93rd season this year. 590 Main Street, 781-662-0641, melrosesymphony.org.
Near downtown, this 1828 Greek Revival mansion is open to the public. Tour the period rooms, the beautiful garden, or one of the constantly changing art exhibits. The house is available for event rentals. 235 West Foster Street, 781-665-992, beebeestate.org.
Beacon Hill Wine
For many years, Melrose was a “dry” town. That, thankfully, has changed, and this shop on Main Street is a treasure trove for hard-to-find spirits, as well as wine, cheese, and gifts. 538 Main Street, 781-665-3332, beaconhillwine.com.
The Beauty Cafe
The Beauty Cafe sells Stila, Smashbox, Paula Dorf, Bare Escentuals, Mario Badescu, and many more exclusive brands of makeup and skin care products. Add meticulous spa services (signature treatment: the 75-minute oxygen facial), and this jewel box of a shop approaches heaven for beautynistas. 515 Main Street, 781-665-6650, thebeautycafe.nu.
Turner’s Seafood Grill & Market
When it comes to fish, freshness is all you need. Add several generations in the business of selling and serving fish in Boston and here, on Melrose’s Main Street, you have a premier seafood restaurant. Enjoy the wine and beer bar and the oyster bar and try the finnan haddie if you need North Shore comfort food. Or, you can come and camp out during Lobster Fest. 506 Main Street, 781-662-0700, turners-seafood.com.
Stearns & Hill’s Bistro
Special event? Hot date? Carnivorous splurge? This is your place: brick walls, mahogany moldings, comfortable leather seating, and a chic tin ceiling. Indulge. 505 Main Street, 781-662-9111, stearnsandhillsbistro.com.
Busy Bee Bakery
This charming cafe offers chicken pot pie, quiche, and other savory things in addition to baked goodies. From breakfast sandwiches to panini, this place is abuzz. The cupcakes alone are worth the visit. 1 Hurd Street, 781-665-3373, busybeebakery.net.
Do you dream about a chic boutique where the clothes are beautiful and the service is personal? This is where to find your next party frock, or a flattering pair of pants. Or a shirt, or scarf, or… 523 Main Street, 781-665-5100.
Hourglass Gift Gallery
With a highly selective collection of fine art and home furnishings, this gallery lives out the philosophy of filling your home with things you know to be useful and believe to be beautiful. 458 Main Street, 781-662-1229, hourglassgiftgallery.com.