The structural footprint of The Mai-Kai changed dramatically last month with the demolition of the long-dormant Bora Bora building, which will pave the way for a reimagined entryway and fully immersive tropical-themed parking lot, outdoor seating area and porte-cochère at the historic South Florida restaurant.
Amid the ruckus outside, the restoration efforts inside the main building advanced quietly but deliberately. Creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller and fellow Orlando-area artist Scott “Flounder” Scheidly completed the New Guinea dining room, a vintage space that dates back to The Mai-Kai’s 1956 opening. They also restored the ceiling and walls near the Tonga dining room, and by the end of the month were full immersed in the Hawaii room.
Laser-focused on The Mai-Kai’s hundreds of custom lamps, they cranked out replicas and refurbished many originals created 50 years ago. After they finish, it will be impossible to tell which lamps are rebuilt and which are vintage, an over-arching theme of the restoration efforts.
Meanwhile, the back-of-house area was a total construction zone as crews prepared for the installation of a new bar and kitchen. Up on the roof, workers were busy sealing the main A-frame and working on new vents, along with the structures to hold the new air-conditioning system.
After electrical work was done, a painting crew put the finishing touches on the men’s restroom. Electricians continued an infrastructure overhaul, preparing for the upcoming installation of a new circuit breaker system.
Despite all the chaos, manager Kern Mattei managed to crank out another round of The Mai-Kai’s signature cocktail quarts and gallons to go on April 26-27. Depending on the progress on the electrical work., which may force the shutdown of the bar’s coolers, the next chance to enjoy the classic tropical drinks may take place only at The Hukilau weekender in June.
Below are updates on all the work that took place in April, including video and many exclusive photos.
Jump to April news and updates below
* Bora Bora Room removed | Photo gallery
* Dining rooms return to vintage glory | Photo gallery
* Work begins on new bar and kitchen
* Former Molokai bar waitress remembered
It’s no surprise that April saw an acceleration of renovation work on multiple fronts. In March, The Mai-Kai officially began the $8.5 million project after three permits cleared the way for three major projects:
* Repair and restoration of the porte-cochère and thatched roofing.
* Removal of the Bora Bora building.
* Interior renovation, including a new bar and kitchen.
The repairs and refurbishments became necessary after the 26,000-square-foot restaurant suffered a catastrophic roof collapse over the kitchen in late October of 2020. The plans – which include both restoring the main building and upgrading and enhancing the parking lot and back of house – became clear after the founding Thornton family sold a majority interest to a new ownership team led by the Barlington Group and historic preservationist Bill Fuller.
The permit approvals restarted the roof thatching project in March. By April, thatching was completed on the porte-cochère as well as the A-frame roofs over the back dining rooms. All that remained was detailing and finishing work, which will happen later.
As April progressed, The Mai-Kai applied for three new permits that will keep projects moving quickly. On April 25, the city of Oakland Park issued a mechanical permit that will allow for the installation of the new kitchen. It won’t expire until Oct. 23, which fits in with the timeline we’re hearing about a reopening coming in the fall.
A mechanical permit for “fire suppression” was applied for in April, then issued in May This likely covers not only a new sprinkler system, but a fine-tuning off The Mai-Kai’s elaborate rooftop exhaust system that pulls smoke from the main showroom after the fire-dancers perform in the Polynesian Islander Revue. Established in the early 1960s, it’s the oldest continually-running authentic South Seas stage show in the United States (including Hawaii).
Still in review as of late May is an over-arching site development and construction permit that covers the next phase of outdoor renovations after the removal of the Bora Bora building. It covers a wide range of landscaping and hardscaping, irrigation, and electrical work that should begin soon in the entryway and parking lot. It also covers “food services” and an “outdoor bar” – which indicates that The Mai-Kai is moving full-steam ahead with plans to expand The Molokai lounge into the porte-cochère.
The permit that covered the Bora Bora Room removal, issued March 3, was extended to expire on June 30. But that extra time was not necessary as the wrecking crew moved in quickly after a company was hired to do the job in April.
EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE: Bora Bora Room removed, clearing way for new entrance
The removal of the 1960s building, approved Jan. 11 by the Oakland Park Historic Preservation Board, will allow plans to move forward for a reimagined entryway and new parking lot flow.
Originally a gift shop, the building was located just to the northeast of the main building, fronting Federal Highway but also accessible via a covered walkway from the porte-cochère. But from Day 1, it was hindered by its stand-alone location, forcing guests to cross the path of vehicles entering and leaving The Mai-Kai.
By the early 1980s, the gift shop had moved back under the main A-frame into a space that was previously the Bangkok dining room, where it remains to this day. For the next two decades, the Bora Bora Room was used for special events, including many weddings and other gatherings that are remembered fondly by guests.
Unfortunately, the building was heavily damaged by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. It had a unique design, built off the ground to allow for elaborate water features in the front. The monster storm knocked the building off its foundation. It was determined to be very costly to fix, and also ruled off limits to guests.
The hurricane caused other damage to The Mai-Kai, and repairs to the main building took priority. By the time the property was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014, Bora Bora was in a constant state of decay. Upkeep was curtailed due to safety reasons.
Look for an upcoming story with more details on the history of the Bora Bora building. For now, we’ll concentrate on its final days in April 2023. The first sign that its ending was near came in mid-April. That’s when the three Tiki carvings that stood near the building and greeted guests under the porte-cochère were brought inside to ensure they weren’t damaged during the demolition.
* Past coverage: ‘King Kai’ leads procession of new tikis into The Mai-Kai (2016)
All salvable decor had been removed during the prior months. This included wood and lava rock from the exterior. Roof and termite damage was extensive, but manager Kern Mattei and his team did a yeoman’s job saving what could be saved. As required by the preservation board, any saved pieces will be used elsewhere on the property. Some wood was already being re-used by Allsmiller while Bora Bora was still standing (see below).
The demolition permit also included the removal of the giant water cooling tower that stood behind the building. A modern HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system with multiple rooftop units will replace the outdated central system.
The demolition was scheduled to begin early in the morning on Tuesday, April 25. By the time I met Mattei there shortly before 9 a.m., the water tower was already down and the excavator’s claw was crunching away on the back of the building. This continued for hours and was captured in our initial videos posted on Instagram and Facebook in the early afternoon:
A large 18-wheeler was coming and going, carrying away debris throughout the day. The small crew on site assisted the heavy machine operator by removing smaller pieces and sorting the debris into piles. Metal and pipes were set aside for recycling.
Wood that had not already been salvaged by creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller was piled separately, awaiting removal. Early in the demolition, Allsmiller stepped in and grabbed a few more wooden poles that became dislodged from the foundation.
By 2 p.m., the crew had moved to the front of the building, and it wasn’t long before the entire structure was flattened. Allsmiller captured the front entrance falling victim to the claw in the afternoon in a video posted on YouTube:
By the end of the day, when we shot this video for YouTube, all the walls had come down and all that was left was the foundation and large piles of debris:
The next day, April 26, featured debris removal all day as the claw operator earned his pay by constantly scooping and clearing the materials that were left.
Meanwhile, workers on the ground helped gather up and remove all of the remnants. As part of the demolition, the thatched roof that connected to the porte-cochère was removed.
By the third day – Thursday, April 27 – much of the debris had been removed and the crews were working on the foundation, clearing out all of the trenches that were built for the water features. Plans call for the possible repurposing of many of these.
The area where the Bora Bora Room once stood will be redesigned as an immersive entryway into the property, curving around the giant banyan trees and bringing guests into a reimagined parking lot featuring water features, rock work, lush landscaping, and nods to authentic Polynesian culture.
A hardscape plan submitted to Oakland Park’s Development Review Committee in January shows The Ma-Kai’s planned entryway after the removal of the Bora Bora building.
MORE IMAGES: Bye bye, Bora Bora
Photos by Hurricane Hayward
INTERIOR REFURBISHMENTS: Dining rooms return to vintage glory
After nearly a year on the job, creative director “Typhoon Tommy” Allsmiller has completed the restoration of a large swath of the front of The Mai-Kai, including the sprawling nautical themed Molokai bar, circa 1970.
* Previous coverage: Recap his work in March
In the past few months, he and assistant Scott “Flounder” Scheidly have begun sinking their teeth into some of the oldest dining rooms in the restaurant, dating back to the 1950s. The job requires a keen eye in knowing exactly what needs to be restored and what doesn’t.
And, most importantly, it requires a special talent for replication when something is worn beyond repair. Luckily for The Mai-Kai, Allsmiller and Scheidly excel in all of these areas. Following is a recap of their work in April, roughly in chronological order, as the craftsmen bounced around from New Guinea to Tonga to Hawaii, and beyond.
After completing the restoration of The Molokai bar in March, they moved their work area to the center of the showroom and “took over the Garden,” said manager Mattei, referring to the prime seating area in front of the stage.
In early April, the New Guinea dining room – an original from 1956, neared completion. Allsmiller aged the new matting that he installed on the walls to look decades older and match the room perfectly. The ceiling was also finished, with old bamboo repaired and reinstalled since it was only lightly damaged.
Allsmiller and Scheidly teamed up on the project, taking out all the broken and split bamboo and piecing it back together. “The two of them working together are doing really, really well,” Mattei said on April 7. “It’s a great combination.”
New tapa cloth was installed on the walls, but some of the vintage displays remain. Like elsewhere in the restaurant, the restoration in this room will create a fun game for returning guests in trying to differentiate the new from the old.
One major part of The Mai-Kai experience that won’t need a lot of restoration is the distinctive furniture, which Allsmiller and Scheidly must work around as they navigate the 500+ capacity interior. Some of the chairs need to be re-upholstered, Mattei said, but most are in good shape after a refresh just a few years before the pandemic.
In the Tonga Room, the raised area in the rear of the showroom, all of the matting and tapa was completed in the corner near the kitchen. Allsmiller and Scheidly also restored several large beams in the area.
Also completed were the walls just below Tonga near the rear stairway and entrance to the kitchen, including more tapa restoration, thatching and bamboo. After the craftsmen are done, a team of painters follows to touch up worn areas and add aging to new materials. They also add the appropriate finishing sealant to the tapa. They typically use Mod Podge, a sealer/glue used to attach fabric to wood.
The restoration team also shored up the rear stairwell in Tonga, adding new edging. Heavy duty paint will be used in this high-traffic area near the kitchen.
* Previous coverage: Work in the Tonga dining room
By mid-April, Allsmiller and Scheidly had completed their work in New Guinea, turing their attention to the many vintage lamps in need of restoration. They showed me a checklist listing some 160 lamps that still require at least some touching up.
The only lamps that won’t need work are the fish floats and balls, as well as some in the higher reaches of the rear dining rooms. Some require only a quick clean-up, but many need to be fully rebuilt.
Their hitlist includes the showroom stage and Garden seating area, the surrounding showroom dining areas (Tonga, Hawaii, Moorea), the back dining rooms (Tahiti, Samoa), the gift shop, the outdoor Lanai, plus miscellaneous hallways.
To accomplish this work in efficient fashion, the boys set up a large work area in the dead center of the main dining room, typically the best seats in the house to view the Polynesian Islander Revue. They have been using this space to crank out replicas and refurbished historic lamps, many created 50 years ago by the venerable Oceanic Arts.
Working off the original schematics when available, they are able to keep everything vintage while upgrading the structure of the lamps. When complete, they’re enhanced with new energy-efficient LED bulbs.
The over-arching goal of their workflow, Allsmiller said, is to finish up an area before moving on. Switching gears to work on lamps also gives the pair a “creative break” from the continuous wall and ceiling work, he said.
In New Guinea, which saw a lot of smoke damage due to its proximity to the stage, all but two of the lamps had to be rebuilt. Allsmiller said that structurally, “everything in there is all new.” Rebuilding “gives us a chance to update the technology” of the vintage lamps, he said.
But at the same time, they go to great efforts to keep things original. Allsmiller said the rebuilding process also “gives us the opportunity to go back to the original drawings” and restore the lamps back to the way they were designed by Oceanic Arts.
Over the decades, many lamps were repaired slopily and hastily, which is perhaps understandable for a busy restaurant with so much upkeep required. A search of The Mai-Kai warehouse during this extensive renovation turned up original Oceanic Arts drawings that came with the lamps, along with instructions and photos from the Southern California company’s catalogs.
The lamp refurbishment was the final major project in New Guinea. All that remains is adding back decorative wall elements and the artifacts in the shadowboxes. A painting crew also needs to come in and add finishing touches.
From there, Allsmiller and Scheidly moved on to the large hallway outside the kitchen. Wood salvaged from the now-demolished Bora Bora building was repurposed as new molding at the bottom of the walls, replacing the standard floor molding that was worn out. Similar trim using repurposed Bora Bora wood will be featured in other nearby hallways, then painted to match the walls.
In the hallway near Tonga, Mattei revealed the backstory of new tapa that was just installed. One of the old tapa displays was well preserved, but the one next to it had to be replaced.
Mattei acquired the vintage cloth from the daughter of a collector who served in the Navy during World War II. Before the war, he apparently led an expedition of Sea Scouts throughout Polynesia, where he collected tapas.
Dating back to the 1930s, the tapa may be from Samoa, Mattei said. One of the designs appears to be the Tongan Shield, the national seal of Tonga.
Before and after: Scott “Flounder” Scheidly rebuilds two vintage lamps that hang in the hallway behind the Hawaii room near The Mai-Kai’s kitchen entrance. (Photos by Kern Mattei and Hurricane Hayward)
During the third week of the month, Allsmiller and Scheidly continued restoring vintage lamps along with the walls and ceiling of the hallways near the kitchen. With all the roof leaks fixed, they were able to put up new thatching and reinstall the rebuilt lamps.
Pieces of wood from the Bora Bora building were used in restoring some of the upper beams. “They fit perfect,” Mattei said. After finishing and painting, it will be impossible to know it’s different wood.
Notably missing from many of the walls are the Polynesian artifacts and other finishing touches that remain in storage. The distinctive black velvet paintings that hang in the rear hallway will return later, after the air conditioning is turned on, Mattei said.
While the crew was busy outside demolishing the Bora Bora Room during the last week of April, Allsmiller and Scheidly moved into the Hawaii Room.
On April 26, they were working on the walls and ceiling, concentrating on several areas with the worst damage. Once again, they put old wood salvaged from Bora Bora to good use in several areas.
MORE IMAGES: Typhoon Tommy leads interior restoration
Photos by Hurricane Hayward (unless noted)
Jump below: Work begins on new bar and kitchen
Follow the artists: Typhoon Tommy and Flounder on Instagram
MORE UPDATES: Work begins on new bar and kitchen
While the removal of the Bora Bora building was significant, some of the most important work in April was happening behind the scenes on modernizing the infrastructure of the 66-year-old Polynesian palace.
By the end of the month, crews were preparing for the installation of the new air-conditioning units on the flat roofs across the main building. That project must wait for the completion of electrical work and the installation of new breaker boxes.
Expected to begin in June, this weeks-long project will involve Florida Power & Light turning off the power and forcing The Mai-Kai to rely on a generator during work hours. Because of this, the next round of takeout cocktails remains in “TBA” status.
Plans remain in place for The Mai-Kai to serve drinks on Thursday, June 8, during The Hukilau, the annual Tiki weekender at the nearby Beachcomber Resort on the Pompano Beach oceanfront. Unfortunately, special tours of the refurbishments will not be permitted, but Typhoon Tommy will share an exclusive presentation on his restoration work on Friday afternoon, June 9. Also scheduled: A special Molokai Girls reunion, plus a Polynesian performance featuring some of The Mai-Kai’s current or former dancers on Saturday, June 10. You can also catch The Atomic Grog during the Sunday brunch appearing on a live recording of Spike’s Breezeway Cocktail Hour. We’ll toast the return of The Mai-Kai with a Rum Barrel.
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Mattei spent April keeping tabs on the sealing of the A-frame, which was compled by the end of the month. Still to be determined: Whether they will paint or thatch the rear portion of the roof, depending on the budget.
The massive flooding that plagued neighborhoods elsewhere in Fort Lauderdale in April had little impact on the work at The Mai-Kai. Mattei said the deluge actually helped crews pinpoint hard-to-find leaks while the roofers were on-site. The leaks were the worst where the A-frame meets the flat roof.
There was some flooding in an unused area of the back parking lot. This will be addressed when drainage is shored up during the reimagination of the grounds and guest entry experience.
In late April, we spotted some old fern wood Tiki carvings from the Bora Bora Room outside The Molokai. They’re too deteriorated to be restored, Mattei said, but they will be used somewhere in the restoration.
On the inside, Mattei was fine-tuning many of the flickering lamps used in the front area of the restaurant as painters put the finishing touches on the men’s room. Earlier, Mattei had updated the restroom with new LED bulbs.
He spent time trying different bulbs with different effects and wattage in an effort to keep the look and feel the same. Mattei also tinkered with different frosting glazes of the glass on the lanterns that were installed in the early 1970s as part of the nautical theming that continues into The Molokai bar.
The lighting in The Mai-Kai isn’t simply dim. It was designed to achieve a specific theatrical effect, a special atmosphere for guests (even in the restrooms). The original lighting designers used old incandescent bulbs, so switching to LED takes some finesse.
Matti is staying true to the design, using lighting to set the mood in each area of the restaurant – by varying the brightness of the bulbs, the frosting on the glass, the intensity of the effect – to achieve the perfect ambience. It’s this meticulous attention to detail that defines the entire renovation.
* Previous coverage: Restroom renovations completed
Meanwhile, work continued all month on preparing the back of house for the installation of a new kitchen and bar, locker rooms, and handicapped restroom. The area adjacent to Mattei’s office was a constant cacophony of drilling, hammering, and loud quipment.
Mattei said crews were “putting up a ton of support beams” to allow the roof to hold the new AC units. Plumbers were mapping out the areas where new pipes would be laid and fixtures installed. Earth movers then dig trenches for new pipes for the bar, kitchen, and bathrooms, Mattei said, calling it “a work in progress.”
Spearheading the back-of-house work is Mad Room Hospitality, a company also owned by the Barlinton Group’s Fuller. The two have have much experience restoring and operating historic restaurants, including Ball & Chain in Miami.
Mad Room will join forces with Mattei and the Thornton family, led by Kulani Thornton Gelardi, in running the restaurant. Discussions are ongoing on the logistics of the temporary kitchen and where equipment will go. “We’ll have a streamlined menu with lots of fast, easy items to get out,” Mattei said. “What it is, we don’t know yet.”
The kitchen is considered temporary because it will be phased out a year or so down the road when the larger, permanent kitchen is build in the footprint of the old, damaged kitchen. This large area where the roof collapsed will also include a new event center.
In the meantime, an area of the existing back of house where staff offices and locker rooms once stood is being repurposed. The kitchen in The Molokai is being refurbished with all new equipment to allow it to serve the 150 guests in the bar, plus the new outdoor seating area.
When The Mai-Kai reopens, the kitchen will need to have the capacity to handle the five dining rooms that seat guests for the dinner show, Mattei said. The Garden, New Guinea, Tonga, Hawaii, and Mororea have a combined 280 seats maximum. “The showroom is where we make our money,” he said.
Still to be determined is whether or not the smaller kitchen can handle the back dining rooms (Tahiti and Samoa), plus the outdoor Lanai and garden. But fear not, those rooms and the lush oudoor area will still be completely restored for guests to enjoy, even if it’s just to walk through or for special bookings.
Last but not least, I wanted to give a big tip of the hat to an unheralded member of The Mai-Kai team who has been ever-present during the renovations. Gustavo, a longtime handyman at the restaurant, can always be spotted around the property, working quietly in the wings.
Until the October 2020 closing, this jack-of-all trades was a maintenance man for 25 years, working with a day crew before guests arrived. He has become indespenstible in keeping The Mai-Kai operating on a basic level.
He also assists Allsmiller and Mattei, or anyone who needs help with the inner workings of the restaurant.”He knows everything,” Mattei said, from gas meters to electrical wiring to water connections.
IN MEMORIAM: Former Molokai bar waitress remembered
Amid all the news on the refurbishment, The Mai-Kai family was saddened by the loss of a longtime former employee. Carol Ann Sparkman, known to everyone as “Tootsie” during her three decades at the restaurant, passed away on April 19.
She started in The Molokai bar as a waitress in the 1970s, appearing in the 1977 calendar. According to manager Kern Mattei, she retired from the bar in the early 1990s but contined to work in The Mai-Kai office for more than a decade.
Mattei, whose father was the manager before him, tells a funny story of Sparkman keeping tabs on his age to make sure he didn’t have a drink until he was legal. She was remembred fondly by many former coworkers when news of her death was posted on social medial.
Our deepest condolences to Tootsie’s family and friends.
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