Built in 1883 as the winter residence of Franklin W. Smith, the Villa Zorayda Museum in historic downtown St. Augustine is one of the most fascinating places to visit in northeast Florida. Modeled after a section of the grand Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, this once lavish home now serves as a museum and is open to the public.
The Museum’s History
Also known as Zorayda Castle, this unique structure has a long and colorful history. When completed in the late 1800s by Smith, an eccentric Boston millionaire, it became the first poured concrete and crushed coquina building in St. Augustine. Today, Villa Zorayda continues to inspire the local architectural landscape.
In 1913, Smith sold the home to Abraham S. Mussallem, an authority on Oriental rugs, fine arts and Egyptian artifacts. In the 1920s, Mussallem turned it into a speakeasy-casino. In the 1930s, it was opened as a museum featuring priceless collections of antiques that are still on display today.
Eye-Catching Rival Architecture
In fact, the museum, which is located on King Street across from Flagler College, recently underwent an extensive renovation that closed its doors for nearly a decade. Today, the museum is open to the public and offers self-guided audio tours seven days a week, showcasing the striking style of Moorish Spanish Revival architecture that it was fashioned after.
Historic Interior Design
When visiting Villa Zorayda, make sure to leave yourself a good hour to explore this architectural and cultural gem. It’s been added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and houses one of the most unique collections of antiquities in America. Such rarities on display include the “Sacred Cat Rug,” which is over 2,400 years old and said to be made from the hairs of ancient cats that roamed the Nile River. You can also see hand-carved tropical hardwood furniture and impressive interior details like the flooring and windows.
Attractions to See Nearby
After taking in the sights at Villa Zorayda, there’s plenty more to see and do in St. Augustine. You can head across the street to Flagler College, which is actually the former Hotel Ponce de Leon. Built in 1888 by railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler, the college is considered one of the finest examples of Spanish Renaissance architecture. It also houses one of the largest collections of Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass. Complete your journey at the Lightner Museum, located just a few doors down from Villa Zorayda. Formerly known as Hotel Alcazar, the Lightner was built in 1887 and houses a sizable collection of costumes, musical instruments and other interesting pieces from the 19th century.