Villa Zorayda: The Moorish building that inspired St. Augustine today


Franklin Waldo Smith didn’t set out to start a revolution in 1883 with the construction of his winter home at 83 King Street in St. Augustine. Villa Zorayda, named for a princess in Washington Irving’s novel, Tales of the Alhambra, was the first residence built in the Moorish Revival style based on the architecture of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

Many structures built in early St. Augustine architecture were lost to fire and weather, prompting the architect to explore a new method of construction using a blend concrete and crushed coquina shells made from shell fragments and quartz sand found in deposits around the city. The revolutionary mixture was both affordable and impervious to fire and moisture and inspired a movement that encapsulated the indomitable spirit of St. Augustine as it stands today.

Villa Zorayda is built one tenth of the scale of a section of the Alhambra and is included on the National Register of Historic Places. This building set a precedent for St. Augustine and began the Moorish Spanish revival of architecture that is visible throughout the city. Wealthy railroad magnate Henry Flagler took note of the architecture.  The Standard Oil partner and Florida developer adopted the style for his nearby hotels and churches on an even grander scale. In 1888, Flagler constructed his Ponce de Leon Hotel, now Flagler College, of the same material and in a Spanish Revival Style. Flagler also did the same with his Hotel Alcazar, now the Lightner Museum.

James Byles presently owns and operates Villa Zorayda as a museum with his wife Marcia Mussallem Byles. As only the second owners of the property, Villa Zorayda has been in the Mussallem family since 1913 and exists much as it did when it was purchased by Marcia’s grandfather, Abraham Mussallem.

In 1904, Villa Zorayda became the Zorayda Club. It was purchased by Mussallem, a successful purveyor of Oriental rugs, fine art and Egyptian artifacts and went on to become an elite site for casino gambling in the early ‘20s.

It first opened as a museum in 1933, featuring the priceless antique collections of both Franklin Smith and A.S. Mussallem, including the bone china custom made exclusively for the Zorayda Club and the “Sacred Cat Rug” which is over 2,400 years old and made from the hairs of ancient cats that roamed the Nile River.

The building began to show signs of age, prompting the husband and wife team to restore the property to its original opulence. Villa Zorayda underwent a significant reconstruction period from 2000 to 2008 and is once again open to the public as a museum. During restorations, attention was paid to even the smallest details. Each window was restored and painted in the original colors and some original architectural drawings dating back to the 1880s was discovered behind walls.

Guests can take a self-guided tour for an in depth look at the historical significance of the building to the City of St. Augustine, the magnificent architecture as well as descriptions of the many exquisite pieces on display. Villa Zorayda is located directly across from Flagler College.


Villa Zorayda Museum celebrates St. Augustine’s 450th Commemoration with Landmark ART Exhibit of visually impaired artist, Steven Dean Anderson’s unique series of the city’s Architectural Heritage. The St. Augustine-based “artist with a unique vision” presents his series “. . . as if postcards past, from Twisted Bark . . .”  Anderson’s will be exhibited among Villa Zorayda’s permanent collection in the museum – the first time an artist has exhibited in the museum since it’s founding in 1933. Featuring many of the city’s historical landmarks, Anderson creates detailed “memories” of days gone past using intense, saturated color and the metaphor of weathered wood to create “remembrances” – postcards – from the land of Twisted Bark, the realm where all of Anderson’s creative work takes place.

Anderson’s art exhibit opens Sept 4 through Oct 1 with a meet and greet with the artist at from 11 am til 4 pm Sept 7. Villa Zorayda celebrates the 450th commemoration with Sept 5-6 with Anderson’s exhibit, a book signing by Mr. Lance Carden featuring his latest book of poetry, “City of Lions” and special performances by Dennis Fermin, Spanish Guitar and the Blue Lotus Bellydancers of St. Augustine. Villa Zorayda 829-9887,

About Liza Mitchell