St. Augustine is known for many Florida firsts, including the first poured concrete building, first Islamic-inspired building and the first fantasy-themed building. All wrapped up in one – Villa Zorayda.
One of the most remarkable buildings in St. Augustine isn’t one of early structures from Spanish Colonial times, nor is it one of the grand buildings Henry Flagler had built. Constructed in 1883, the Villa Zorayda was the winter home of Franklin W. Smith. Smie came from a prominent Boston family and made his fortune in selling tools and hardware.
Smith was an abolitionist, business reformer, supported Abraham Lincoln for president and was one of the founders of the YMCA in the US.
When Smith decided to build a winter home in St. Augustine, he wanted it to stand out. Considered to be an amateur architect, he chose to build a home that was unique both visually and because of the method of construction.
Smith took inspiration from trips to Europe, and zeroed-in on the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain for the start of his plan. The iconic Moorish-Islamic fort and residence built primarily in the 12th century, became a royal palace in 1333 for Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada.
A proponent of modern construction techniques, Smith had the home built using poured concrete, believed to be a first in Florida. The concrete mix used local coquina shells and crushed coquina stone mined in quarries on Anastasia Island. It gave Villa Zorayda a similar look to the Castillo de San Marcos but with much stronger walls for their width.
The method was successful enough that Henry Flagler used it in several of his massive projects in St. Augustine. Smith also used the technique again, most notably in the Casa Monica Hotel, located just east of the Villa.
Located at 83 King Street, the construction of the Villa Zorayda is only the beginning of the story. Being a New Englander, it’s probably not surprising that Smith took the name for his home from the early American writer Washington Irving and his Tales of the Alhambra. Zorayda was one of the princesses in Irving’s stories.
The Villa Zorayda can be considered the first fantasy-themed building in the state. While no one can be certain, it’s possible that it helped foster the role of fantastic architecture throughout the state.
The Villa was sold after Franklin Smith’s death in 1913. The new owner, Abraham Mussallem was a Syrian-born antiquities merchant. As of 2020, his family still owns the house.
Mussallem used the house for several purposes including a hotel, nightclub and restaurant. It’s likely that it’s been a museum longer that its other uses and is typically known Zorayda Castle as brochures from the 1960s-onward show.
The museum showcases artwork and artifacts collected by both Smith and Mussallem and is a favorite visitor spot in St. Augustine. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993 when it was celebrating its 110th anniversary.
As interesting as the contents of the museum are, it’s still the architecture and remarkably-detailed stylistic elements that can impress visitors the most. The building is filled with hand-painted wood panels and ceramic tiles, beautiful stained glass and plaster reliefs. Much of the collection came from the Middle East and north Africa.
There were extensive renovations starting in 2003 with the museum closed until 2008.
It’s one of the most unusual museums in Florida with a unique collection in a beautiful historic building. Definitely a not-to-be-missed attraction in a city filled with unique attractions.