As summer came to a close, The Mai-Kai started the final phase of its multimillion-dollar renovation with a reimagination of the parking lot. The project will take at least three months, pushing the timeframe of the reopening into early 2024.
In preparation, the artists and craftsmen have shifted from inside to outside under the porte-cochère, where a flurry of work is being completed before the pavement is torn up to make way for a new outdoor bar, seating area and redirected driveway.
Meanwhile work continues on the indoor guest areas, infrastructure and a new back-of-house kitchen and bar, outlined in our related story. We hope to bring you up to speed on what’s been going on at the historic South Florida restaurant over the past few weeks, followed by an extensive summer recap.
RELATED: Inside The Mai-Kai: Detailed restoration advances amid total infrastructure overhaul (summer 2023 recap)
MORE COVERAGE: News, photos of The Mai-Kai refurbishment
Most of the recent activity has been out front under the porte-cochère, where we recently found manager Kern Mattei with creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and his fellow artists hard at work restoring artwork, finishing refurbished beams, and adding creative new touches to the historic thatched A-frame structure that serves as the entryway to the restaurant.
* The Mai-Kai and The Atomic Grog at Tiki Oasis
* The Mai-Kai renovations, May-June 2023: Historic restaurant’s new infrastructure begins to take shape
* Meticulous attention to detail is hallmark of The Mai-Kai restoration project (May-June 2023 update)
While not rushing the comprehensive restoration, Mattei said, the crew is making a concerted effort to get as much done as possible before the massive parking lot project kicks into full gear. “This is a big project out here,” Mattei said on Sept. 7, pointing out all the work. New lights were just installed that day.
Allsmiller and artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly are making the most of this time, nearing the completion of restoring the lighted upper panels above the front doors. The stylized fiberglass pieces date back to the late 1950s, when the original Molokai bar replaced what was an outdoor waiting area. The entire facade was reconfigured and new entry doors added.
Tim “Swanky” Glazner, author of Mai-Kai: History and Mystery of the Iconic Tiki Restaurant, shared a photo from around 1960 that shows the panels in their original state:
The restoration job was not easy. The lights have not worked since Hurricane Wilma slammed South Florida in 2005 and did considerable damage to the porte-cochère. That’s the same storm that knocked the nearby Bora Bora building off its foundation. That structure, located just north of the porte-cochère, was removed in April to make way for the new entryway.
The storm is also likely responsible for the loss of several panels. But thanks to photos provided by historian Glazner, Allsmiller and Scheidly were able to create replicas of the lost pieces. To keep the restoration as authentic as possible, they re-created the panels out of fiberglass salvaged from a service doorway outside The Molokai that had been around for just as long and had also turned yellow with age.
There was also extensive man-made damage. Before Wilma hit, the panels were altered when triangular holes were cut and pieces of the artwork removed, apparently to allow access to the lights behind. Allsmiller and Scheidly patched the holes seamlessly, restoring the artwork and panels to their original state.
On Sept. 7, the first of the panels was reinstalled with some of the lights in test phase. By Sept. 21, all of the lights were working and the panels had their first night test. All that’s left is some trimming and fine-tuning.
Scheidly said he’s “really excited” about the finished panels, adding: “I think it’s going to look amazing.” He noted that in recent photos, “you can barely see them and they just look like painted wood.”
It was previously difficult to stand and admire the panels as traffic passed through the porte-cochère and guests hurried into the restaurant. With the area reconfigured into outdoor seating, they will be much more impactful. “I’m excited to get them up to see how they look. I think it’s going to be fantastic and well-received,” Scheidly said.
The panels received an extensive refurbishment, not just a touch-up. “We took them completely apart and painted the insides because they were all dirty,” Allsmiller said. “The other issue was all the diamonds were cut out, so we glassed them all back in, and made new ones for the ones that were missing.”
Meanwhile, two other South Florida artists have joined Allsmiller and Scheidly under the porte-cochère. Jeff Kozan, owner of Vatican Tattoo in Delray Beach, returned to lend a hand with painting work. [See his previous work restoring damaged tapa]
Kozan helped add a wood-grain finish to the main beams, then returned to assist with detail work on new artwork.
After wrapping up his work creating new panels and trim for the interior, Conrad Teheiura Itchener joined the gang outside to add a faux bamboo finish to the metal poles that crisscross the porte-cochère. Allsmiller borrowed this technique from the theme park world, where he spent 13 years as a Thea Award-winning scenic artist for Universal and Disney.
Working high on a scissor lift, Itchener used epoxy putty to transform the framework into what will look like intersecting bamboo poles. They will be finished with rope for a fully realistic look. “All the intersections are getting rope-wrapped,” Allsmiller said. “We’ll probably use some kind of synthetic that looks good and lasts longer.”
Itchener, a former musician in The Mai-Kai’s Polynesian Islander Revue, spent the summer making exact copies of damaged panels and trim for the gift shop and women’s restroom.
RELATED: More photos, details on Itchener’s work creating molds, new decorative panels
Allsmiller’s transformation of the porte-cochère will also include new artwork on the beams. He showed off a test on Sept. 14, and by the following week the crew was fully immersed in layering the Marquesan-style designs.
The beams are being restored to include hidden lighting, similar to the original design. New LED lights will sit behind a panel that runs parallel to the beam. The original lighting was destroyed in a hurricane and never replaced.
LATEST NEWS: In the photo above, Allsmiller (left) and Mattei can be seen conferring under the porte-cochère on Sept. 21 while Itchener continues his work on the faux bamboo and Kozan touches up Allsmiller’s new artwork being added to the beams.
In the meantime, here’s a look back the work done over the summer:
MORE IMAGES: Porte-cochère restoration work at The Mai-Kai
Photos by Hurricane Hayward (unless noted)
Check out more images of the restoration of the historic panels on Instagram:
ENTRYWAY REIMAGINATION: Parking lot project begins in mid-September
The long-awaited reimagination of The Mai-Kai parking lot and entry experience finally kicked off in mid-September as trees were relocated and heavy equipment arrived to begin digging up the vast expanse of asphalt.
The first crew arrived during the week of Sept. 18 to start removing large swaths of pavement in preparation for the installation of new drainage pipes. On Sept. 21, we spotted earth-movers at the north end of the lot while work trucks and crew were busy on the south end near the back-of-house building.
Mark Cabana, the on-site supervisor for general contractor JB Construction, said on Sept. 14 that crews are scheduled to rip up the asphalt, then dig trenches for new drainage pipes. “It’s going to get exciting around here,” he said.
Manager Kern Mattei said he’s unsure how much of the asphalt will ultimately need to be removed after the pipe is laid. There’s a concerted effort to “move as fast as possible” on this part of the job, he said.
The entire project is expected to last at least three months, Mattei confirmed. That will likely push any reopening plans into early 2024, as detailed below.
Before the construction crews arrived, landscapers saved and relocated all the trees that stood in the way of potential digging. “We’re going to try to save everything,” Mattei said.
On Sept. 14, we watched a crew move the palm trees from outside the west wall that abuts Northeast 20th Avenue to a strip of Mai-Kai property along the back of the neighboring furniture stores.
Others, including a rare cashew tree, were earmarked for relocation elsewhere. Since cashew trees require a frost-free tropical climate, planting in the United States is limited to extreme South Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. (There is no commercial cashew production in the United States, though cashews are grown in botanical collections and some home landscapes.)
Thankfully, The Mai-Kai’s giant banyan trees will not need relocation. The historic tree, which towers some 100 feet, has likely been in its location near the main entrance for at least a century before The Mai-Kai existed. Banyans are a type of fig tree native to tropical and subtropical regions of the world. They’re known for their large, spreading canopies and aerial prop roots.
As part of the redesign of the entryway, the driveway that guests take from Federal Highway will be re-routed to the right of the banyan instead of going straight and under the porte-cochère. The covered entryway area will become outdoor seating with a small bar, a stage for live music, and special design features.
Traffic will flow through the area where the Bora Bora building stood until it was removed in April. Vehicles will then enter a themed roundabout that will better manage flow in and out of the property to avoid backups on busy Federal.
It’s an ambitious plan that also includes the removal and rebuilding of the back wall along Northeast 20th Avenue. A new wall expected to be 8 feet high will better shield the nearby houses and create a more immersive experience for guests. Once you cross the wooden bridge and enter The Mai-Kai property, you will be completely swept away to a tropical paradise.
Past coverage of the parking lot plans
* Bora Bora building comes down as restoration efforts pick up steam (May 28)
* Removal of Bora Bora building to pave the way for a new arrival experience (March 15)
* Updates, new images of the site plan (Feb. 5)
* Historic preservation board approves The Mai-Kai’s renovation plans (Jan. 13)
POTENTIAL REOPENING: New estimate points to early 2024 timeframe
While it’s too early for The Mai-Kai to make an official statement on an opening date or even a range of dates, the latest information leads us to believe that the early months of 2024 would be a conservative estimate. In fact, a comment posted by the restaurant’s official Instagram page in reply to that very question stated on Sept. 21: “We are looking at early 2024. No date yet.”
Many delays can be attributed to the restaurant’s status as both a local and national historic landmark. “The historic status is a blessing and a curse at the same time,” manager Kern Mattei said. It ensures that The Mai-Kai remains intact, but it also slows down the approval process.
While everything within The Mai-Kai’s control seems to be moving along at a steady if not speedy pace, many parts of the project depend upon third parties to move swiftly.
One example: Florida Power & Light has still not flipped the switch to restore full power to the property, allowing the new air-conditioning system to be turned on and tested. The Mai-Kai has been operating on generator power since June 5. A permit has been issued for more work on the new rooftop HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) unit, but that work can’t proceed until the system is operational.
Permits related to the back-of-house are moving along, but many remain. As of Sept. 21, the fire sprinkler approvals were 67 percent complete, the kitchen hood system was 54 percent approved, and the over-arching “interior renovation” permit was 41 percent complete. Just to show the scope of the project, the latter permit included 27 approvals, 7 disapprovals, and 39 inspections and reviews yet to be done.
Approval of the parking lot plans by the state Department of Transportation did not happen until the end of August, months after it was submitted. The massive project and all of its many approval steps is now back in the hands of the city of Oakland Park.
Two miscellaneous permits have joined the existing two that cover the outdoor site improvements. One is for the demolition (and subsequent rebuilding) of the wall that runs along the west side of the property. The other allows for construction of a new dumpster enclosure. The two main permits cover everything from landscaping, to irrigation, to plumbing and electric for a new outdoor bar.
As noted above, the parking lot project is massive and will take at least three months to complete, according to the general contractor. Then comes all the new landscaping, rock work and many artistic elements that will be added to give The Mai-Kai a vastly different and immersive experience for arriving guests.
Following this schedule, the outdoor work would not be done until late December in a best-case scenario. This doesn’t include the time required for final approvals of both the outdoor and indoor renovations, not to mention staffing, training and management’s efforts to make sure the guest experience will be perfect.
It would be nice to see The Mai-Kai open in some form or fashion for its 67th anniversary on Dec. 28, but a full-blown reopening doesn’t seem likely until early 2024. Until then, we can take solace in the inspirational message we found taped to the mirror in the men’s restroom:
Following is a look back at some of the other outdoor projects since our last update at the end of June.
BEAM EXTENSIONS: Decorative facades includes callback to 1956
In August, the woodworking crew restored and repaired the three stylized roof beam projections on the front of the building below the main A-frame. More significantly, a longer beam was returned to its historic spot in front of The Molokai bar. While the shape of the beam is slightly different to match the others, this feature dates back to the original Mai-Kai, circa 1956, before the lounge was added.
The original beam projection where The Molokai bar now stands can be seen in the following 1956 photos provided by Mai-Kai historian Glazner, the author and historian. The area was originally a covered waiting area for arriving guests before the first version of the lounge was added in 1958. The Molokai was expanded and re-themed during the 1970 expansion.
Allsmiller and Scheidly treated the new beam extensions with a realistic wood-grain finish, similar to the porte-cochère. Mattei said they will match the beams in the showroom.
The beams are designed to be lighter than the nearby wood so they stand out. In addition, Polynesian artwork will be added to the nearby fascia board.
The creative director said he’s working on a new pattern, “something a little more traditional.” He said he’s trying to create something based more on Marquesan and Hawaiian art than the previous graphics, which were likely Polynesian Pop designs created by restaurant designer George Nakashima during the 1970 renovation.
UTILITIES: Rooftop air-conditioning units await full power
Crews have been busy all summer on the roof, getting all the air-conditioning units and vents in place. In July, a crane arrived to move the six massive AC boxes onto the roof.
When Florida Power & Light finally turns on the full power to the building, the system will be cranking cold air into the historic property for the first time since the October 2020 closing.
The equipment will be camouflaged later by higher walls at the roofline on the back of the building and a mansard out front.
Here’s one of the architectural renderings by Kravit Architectural Associates that shows the new roofline:
Stay tuned for more updates.
MORE COVERAGE: News, photos of The Mai-Kai refurbishment
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