When some writer dramatizes Savannah’s historic preservation story somehow – a play, a novel, an opera – I hope there’s space for a character like Ramsey Khalidi.
It might need to be a big space. Because Savannah’s urban recycler-in-chief has an ocean-sized personality with a planet-sized sense of purpose.
“I never would have been able to dream all of this up from the inception,” he says of his work, more like his mission, in Savannah. “It’s evolved as people come by.”
Khalidi has been restoring buildings here for 35 years. The human whirligig behind Southern Pine Company and RK Construction rescues abandoned architecture.
It all started when he moved to Savannah in 1979. SCAD just opened. The preservation movement had begun two decades earlier but still hadn’t really dented rampant blight.
“When I got to Savannah, I saw as many dilapidated homes as standing homes, especially in the Victorian District,” he says. “And I just knew that was my mission.”
His restoration work dots the city. But it wasn’t enough for him to gussy up a facade and call it preservation. He became the “everything is recyclable” preservationist.
He started saving doors, windows, mantles, trim and other unloved materials to use in future projects. It was all kind of obsessive. And some folks didn’t quite understand it.
He once even took a metal roof, cut it up into 10×40 ft. sections, rolled it up like carpet and unrolled it on a new building – all to prevent a carbon-intensive meltdown in China.
“We’ll deconstruct a door or a window and take its parts to make it into something else,” he says. “It’s something that I did from passion that’s now becoming a business.”
His reclaimed wood tables, cabinets and furniture are beautiful and functional art. They offer a sense of history that reaches back to Georgia’s past as a timber harvesting capital.
And they keep tossed-off materials from clogging up landfills. But it wouldn’t be Ramsey to stop at urban recycling. He became the “build a community” preservationist.
“The recycling is almost like an entry-level drug,” Khalidi says of what Southern Pine has become. “Because then you start to think of other ways of making a better planet.”
So he invited artists and eco-friendly businesses to set up shops in his huge building on East Broad Street. PERC Coffee and Dilated Spectrum, among others, followed.
And he co-founded, with SCAD sustainability guru Scott Boylston, Emergent Structures, a non-profit organization dedicated to the innovative use of reclaimed materials.
“It became a collaborative of furniture builders, designers and marketers,” he says. “This is a prototype idea of a completely sustainable world.”
He hosted concerts and art shows that invigorated the community. The Savannah Bazaar hawked its wares in the former commercial laundry building’s courtyard for a while.
He describes this pivot into “business incubator” as a happy accident of the Recession. His construction business tanked. So his huge building started to look like rental income.
“We had all this space. So it became a startup hub,” he says. “I create the environment. They have their own energy. We inspire. But that’s easy.”
Accident? Easy? I don’t believe it. The man is constantly choosing the hard way of doing things, from construction to community. And he has a hard time saying no to good ideas.
I say no to good ideas all the time! So who’s the crazy one here? The only thing I’ll say is that he’s super busy. I doubt he sleeps much.
“It manages you. You don’t manage it,” he says of his schedule. “It gets to a point where you hit a wall and realize that design is all-encompassing.”