Kurt Cyr, Hip Owner of Palm Springs Mod Squad
Bringing architectural history into the Palm Springs present
By Kevin Perry
For as long as humankind has lived indoors, we have been fascinated with architecture. The curve of a rooftop, the flow of a corridor, the towering triumph of the walls that surround us – these are the hallmarks of who we are and what we aspire to be.
And for Mod Squad owner Kurt Cyr, the love of architecture begins at home.
“Our first house in 1999 was one of the last Alexanders,” he reminisces. “I just knew that we wanted kind of a sexy house with glass walls that opened out to the swimming pool. That’s what we got. It’s been a learning process for me about the specifics of the design. I knew of some of the architects but then really started doing a deep dive in learning more about the specific desert modern architects here. Basically, when you live here in Palm Springs, the local architects are celebrities.”
Cyr savors names like Bill Krisel and Donald Wexler like he’s sipping a fine wine. And continuing this metaphor of a desirable vintage, his knowledge of the Palm Springs aesthetic aged beautifully over the next decade.
“2010 is when we moved here full time. It was during the depths of the recession, so there wasn’t a whole lot of design work going on.” Ever resourceful, Kurt began constructing a new legacy for himself. “I started volunteering during Modernism Week because, as a designer, I loved architecture and midcentury design and there were so many cool houses. This was a way for me to get inside the houses during Modernism Week. So I docent’ed and then I was tapped a couple years later to get on top of the double-decker buses and do the tours. My buses started selling out and then they were getting chartered and I thought ‘This is pretty cool!’ I really enjoyed doing it.”
After wading through the necessary licensing process, Cyr was ready to hit the road in style. “And five years ago I founded Palm Springs Mod Squad.”
Since its inception, Kurt’s business has enlightened scores of visitors to the hidden wonders of our hometown. “Most people are quite surprised that Palm Springs, being such a small city, has such a wealth of impressive architecture. The fact that it survived is really quite amazing.”
Cyr regards midcentury modernism with the dedication of a first responder rescuing it from the ashes of time. “This was going on everywhere in Southern California; Los Angeles had this type of architecture. But because Palm Springs was a resort community, people didn’t constantly remodel and change and upgrade their houses because they only used them a few months out of the year… Development passed Palm Springs by in the 70’s and 80’s towards the down valley.”
Like an archaeologist of awesome, Kurt’s voice swells with hope as he recounts the happy ending to this chapter of history. “The fact that it was such an incredibly large group of intact midcentury modern homes, in a way Palm Springs was the deep freezer of midcentury design just waiting for the thaw to happen in the mid 1990’s.”
The warmth of Cyr’s delivery flickers into a blaze as he continues, “They started to get rediscovered. And they were cheap! So, as a young designer out of Los Angeles, you could get a house that was 125 to 150 thousand dollars and have it as your second home. So they were really cool designs and eminently affordable.”
Accessibility breeds notoriety, and Kurt Cyr is riding a wave that continues to refresh the architectural world. “With the popularity of Modernism Week and Mad Men, midcentury design is very much of the zeitgeist right now. Everybody is interested in midcentury design.”
Planting a flag in said zeitgeist, Cyr pronounces, “Palm Springs has become an architectural destination for the world.”
And he’s ready to welcome these curious caravans, one ride at a time. “In my daily tours I fit five people comfortably. It’s a minivan, so these are intimate tours. It’s not uncommon to have someone form England, a couple from Australia, someone from Germany, somebody from Brooklyn, we get an incredible cross-section of the world coming to Palm Springs specifically to see our architecture.”
If Kurt sounds like the perfect host, it’s because he appreciates the warm embrace of the Inland Empire community that he now calls home. “What we discovered when we moved out here was that within six months, we had a richer, deeper social network of friends than we ever did in the 20-some years in Los Angeles. People in Palm Springs choose to live here. They’re not here by accident. The fact that they choose to be here, I think that they’re happy. And that makes for a very happy town. There’s a wonderful creative class that lives in Palm Springs and they come from all over the world.”
Cyr wants to nurture this creativity so that the collective enthusiasm for midcentury modernism never again fades into the shadows of history. “It’s really important that we continue to preserve and maintain our architecture, but it’s also important not to just live in the past. It’s important to continue this architectural tradition by bringing younger people in with schooling. I really think that there needs to be an architectural school here.”
Big passion yields big dreams, and Kurt yearns to “bring young people in to see and learn from the past, but also to create and design the future. That’s an important lifeblood for Palm Springs. We have such a rich, architecturally historic past and we can build upon that for the future.”
And it is a bright future, indeed, as long as Palm Springs Mod Squad is at the helm.