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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.
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.
Built in 1883 as the winter residence of Franklin W. Smith, an eccentric Boston millionaire, the Villa Zorayda Museum became one of the most fascinating places to visit in northeast Florida. Modeled after a section of the grand Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, it is also known as Zorayda Castle. This unique structure has a long and colorful history. 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.
Smith, a wealthy merchant, extensive traveler, and student of history an architecture, had the house built according to his detailed plans using his unique method of construction of poured concrete and crushed coquina shell. It is built 1/10th the scale of a section of the magnificent Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. In 1904, the building was turned into a popular club known as the Zorayda Club, featuring fine dining and dancing. In 1922, it became one of the most fashionable places for casino gambling. Realizing the building’s historic significance, Mussallem opened it as a museum in 1933. The tour gives an in-depth look at the historical significance of the building to the City of St. Augustine.
There are magnificent architectural details, such as walls made of plaster ground with alabaster using the same molds that were carved by the Moors in the 13th century for the Alhambra Palace, hand-pierced brass lamps, hand-painted tiles, exquisite furnishings, artifacts and priceless antiques from countries around the world from the collections of Franklin Smith and A.S. Mussallem.
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.