Home is Where the Art Is: Latin Lover

By Alyssa Giacobbe | Boston Magazine |

From the outside, the sprawling late-19th-century Back Bay townhouse Dr. Margarita Alegría shares with her husband, Thomas McGuire, is as Brahmin as it gets: creaky wrought-iron gate, 12-foot mahogany doors with brushed-brass fixtures, slate-roofed brownstone façade. It was built in 1879 by Carl Fehmer, a landmark architect whose major works include the Boylston Building (at number 2) and the Gothic Revival receiving tomb in Jamaica Plain’s Forest Hills Cemetery, both of which remain standing today. Though not Fehmer’s largest project, the townhouse is by all accounts a masterpiece.


From the outside, the sprawling late-19th-century Back Bay townhouse Dr. Margarita Alegría shares with her husband, Thomas McGuire, is as Brahmin as it gets: creaky wrought-iron gate, 12-foot mahogany doors with brushed-brass fixtures, slate-roofed brownstone façade. It was built in 1879 by Carl Fehmer, a landmark architect whose major works include the Boylston Building (at number 2) and the Gothic Revival receiving tomb in Jamaica Plain’s Forest Hills Cemetery, both of which remain standing today. Though not Fehmer’s largest project, the townhouse is by all accounts a masterpiece.

When Alegría and McGuire moved in four and a half years ago, though, it was the interior that thrilled them most. Behind all that Commonwealth Avenue stateliness and blueblood pedigree was just the type of blank canvas they were looking for.

“The height and space on the walls, and the light!” Alegría says. “Every aspect seemed tailor-made for our art.” She and her husband possess an impressive array of nearly 50 small- and large-scale paintings, photographs, and sculptures. Heavy on Latin American artists, many from Alegría’s native Puerto Rico, the collection is more than 20 years in the making and includes such luminaries as Joan Miró and Carlos Cancio. The townhouse’s previous owners, also art collectors, had reworked much of Fehmer’s original design to create a gallerylike effect, so while the architecture remains steeped in tradition, the house thrums with a thoroughly modern and entirely personal artistic energy. Alegría says it all by stating the obvious: “Art is my passion.”

Many would call Alegría’s fascination predictable, growing up as she did in an art-enthusiastic family. One uncle worked as an antiquarian; another, the famed archeologist Ricardo Alegría, was known throughout San Juan for his art collection. Today, Alegría’s brother owns the gallery Obra in San Juan, where Alegría purchases some of her art. Her choices alternate between world-renowned Latin American masters and up-and-comers she “just has a feeling about.”

Actually, it’s more an educated guess; Alegría has spent years developing her eye for talent. Back in college in the 1970s, when her pals at Georgetown were blowing their extra cash on clothes and kegs, she began picking up artwork and studying the creative process. She spent her Saturdays strolling the brick sidewalks of P Street in Washington, where struggling artists would set up their easels in makeshift open-air studios. “I’d watch them paint; it fascinated me,” she recalls. “I also spent a lot of time at the Smithsonian, learning what forms of art I liked and what I didn’t, what to look for.” What started with college posters moved swiftly to lithographs and then oils. Two Miró prints at $200 apiece from a New York art dealer marked her first serious buy; she estimates their current value at more than $2,000 each.

After Georgetown, Alegría returned to San Juan, where she continued her habit of befriending street artists and began to cultivate her appreciation for modern Latin American works. “There’s a square in Old San Juan where painters sit and work—and are willing to talk to you while they do it,” she explains. “They’d paint what they saw: street urchins, tourists, the people walking by.” She would also browse local antiques shops. It was there she found a piece by Alan McCurdy, an American expat with a reputation for uncommon Puerto Rican landscapes. At the time Alegría bought his painting The Door to San Juan, he was an unknown; since then, his fame—along with the demand for and value of his paintings—has skyrocketed. For Alegría, his painting remains a vivid reminder of home.

Alegría never allows herself to stray too far from Puerto Rico. As director of the Center for Multicultural Mental Health Research at the Cambridge Health Alliance, she works on ways to implement better mental-health care and travels up to 10 weeks a year in Puerto Rico and Latin America. Last year she was awarded a prestigious five-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health for use in ethnic mental-health research, and she is the only Latina to serve as full professor at Harvard Medical School. Her work, like her art collecting, is an impassioned reflection of who she is and where she comes from.

“In Latin American art, you get a lot of suffering: lines on faces, tired hands, wrinkles—a clear picture of what people there have been experiencing for much of the 20th century,” she says. “I like that it’s honest. But some people have asked me, ‘Why would you buy a painting like this?’”

The McCurdy painting (“so dear to my heart,” she says) hangs in the living room, placed on a meticulously painted ivory wall between two beige couches by Barbara Barry, an American furniture designer whose unadorned styles subtly reinforce the opulence of the art. In fact, most of the furniture and walls in Alegría’s home are done in neutral tones so as not to compete with the art in any way. “We chose ivory walls to better move your eye toward the artwork,” Alegría says. “The ivory provides a simple frame for the paintings,” as if surrounding them with supersize mats.

Near the McCurdy hangs a massive 6-by-5-foot oil painting of three ballerinas by Puerto Rican artist Carlos Cancio, whose works, Alegría says, “reveal the magical aura of the world in the Caribbean.” It took the couple nearly six months to figure out where, exactly, to hang it. “I tend to buy a piece I love and then look for a space to put it, which has been a huge problem,” Alegría admits. “Sometimes it means moving furniture to accommodate a piece of art. But the art has to come first.”

Beside a front window is an oil painting by Ecuador’s Oswaldo Guayasamín, whose severe representations of the anger and distress felt by the Ecuadorian working class were declared national treasures after his death in 1999. Alegría had been eyeing this particular eerie and somewhat disturbing piece for years before snagging it at a Christie’s auction in 1985; it’s one of her biggest purchases to date. The rest of the living room comes together with smaller works from Alegría’s travels and antiques either inherited or won at auction: a Baccarat chandelier passed down from her father, a Tiffany lamp bought in Miami, antique Indonesian textile art known as ikats.

As disparate as the ensemble seems, it all coheres nicely, mainly because Alegría has done the legwork to discover unique pieces that fit into her vision. Besides buying from her brother’s gallery in Puerto Rico, she also acquires through auction houses like Sotheby’s or Christie’s, sometimes even eBay. She has a particular piece in mind at all times, and jumps when it comes up for sale. “Right now, I would love an Armando Reverón painting,” she says, referring to the acclaimed Venezuelan artist. “One recently came up. I bid, but I didn’t get it.” Alegría does not have a buyer or an adviser, unlike most collectors at her level of spending, and enjoys researching where to buy specific pieces herself. “It’s my outlet,” she says.

Another outlet, it seems, is do-it-yourself home improvement. Alegría and McGuire insist that, aside from small renovations to an upstairs bathroom, all the interior design was an in-house job. For two very busy people—McGuire is a professor of healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School—that’s saying something, and it enhances the personal nature of the setting. The family room, for example, forms the backdrop for more-casual moments—cocktails with friends or TV nights on the cushy Ralph Lauren leather couch. The room’s centerpiece is a red-toned painting by influential Puerto Rican abstractionist Luis Hernández Cruz.

“Latin American art has grown tremendously in the last 15 years,” Alegría says. “It’s a very forceful market. Things formerly accessible have become harder to get.” Museums in the United States are expanding to include more Latin American art, most notably the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which in 2004 launched a Latino Arts Initiative to acquire and exhibit more of these works. Subsequently, prices have escalated.

But Alegría is happy to pay if it means more exposure for Latin American artists, who have traditionally struggled to make a living. One of her favorite acquisitions is Al Acecho, “a puzzle of colors and movement” painted by Puerto Rican realist Orlando Vallejo. Its appearance, she says, differs for each viewer and can change depending on the light. Alegría searched for it for several years, and now it hangs in her entryway, the first image she sees when she gets home and the last when she leaves.

“Sometimes we’ll have guests over who’ll say they’d never seen a particular piece before, when in fact we’ve had it for years,” she says. “In the old house, that piece went unnoticed. Here, it’s found its place. I want to do that for every work I own.”