The Villa Zorayda was built in 1883 as the winter residence of Franklin Webster Smith utilizing his method of construction, poured concrete and crushed coquina shell. Smith replicated architectural details of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain for his residence. The Villa Zorayda set a precedence for architecture in St. Augustine and began the Moorish Spanish Revival style of architecture that is seen throughout the city today as well as the concrete and coquina construction that was used throughout the city.
After 20 years as a residence, the building was leased out and transformed into the Zorayda Club, a restaurant and club where the most prominent guests enjoyed dining, dancing, and socializing. After Smith’s death, in 1913, the building and part of Smith’s collection were sold to Abraham Mussallem, an immigrant from Lebanon, who was an authority on oriental rugs and Egyptian artifacts.
In the 1920s, the Zorayda Club became a gambling casino and speakeasy, and by the late 1920s, Abraham and his wife, Olga, decided to close the club and live in the building as their residence with their family. After a few years, the Mussallems realized how important the building was to St. Augustine’s history, and in 1933, they opened it as a museum, the Villa Zorayda Museum.
The Mussallem family have now been the guardians of the Villa Zorayda for over 105 years. First, with Abraham & Olga Mussallem, who operated it as a museum until their deaths, and later in the 1960s by their sons, Eddy and Wally Mussallem, who restored the museum and renamed it Zorayda Castle. Zorayda Castle closed in the year 2000 and underwent an extensive 8 year restoration financed by Eddy Mussallem, former Mayor of St. Augustine. Overseeing the restoration was Eddy’s daughter, Marcia Mussallem Byles, and her husband, James Byles. In 2008, the Villa Zorayda reopened once again as a museum going back to the original name given to it by Franklin Smith. Over 105 years and three generations, the Mussallem/Byles family have been the guardians of the Villa Zorayda.
Today, the 45-60 minute tour gives 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 you will see. The Museum features the priceless antique collections of both Franklin Smith and A.S. Mussallem. One of our most discussed pieces on display is the “Sacred Cat Rug” which is over 2400 years old and made from the hairs of ancient cats that roamed the Nile River.
It was Franklin Smith’s intention to bring part of Spain to Spanish St. Augustine and to educate his visitors about different cultures from around the world. We are happy to share the history of the Villa Zorayda with you and to keep Franklin Smith’s masterpiece open for the public to enjoy.