Our History

Franklin Smith's Villa Zorayda
Smith’s Villa Zorayda, 1800s

Villa Zorayda was built in 1883 by Franklin W. Smith as his winter home utilizing Moorish Revival Architecture. Smith was a wealthy hardware merchant and architect from Boston, Massachusetts who traveled the world extensively studying ancient civilizations, architecture, and construction methods. In America, he designed and built in different styles. He used his structures as educational tools to teach about past civilizations from around the world and he documented his research in his book, Design and Prospectus.

During the Gilded Age (1877-1900), it was common for those part of the American upper class to travel abroad visiting European cities and the Mediterranean collecting and honoring cultural heritage. Many Gilded Age mansions were designed after European architecture to enhance Western culture in America. For Smith’s winter home, he implemented the Moorish Revival style of architecture inspired by the magnificent Alhambra Palace, in Granada Spain. The Alhambra was built in the 9th Century as a fortress, and it later became a palace in the 13 Century. Because of St Augustine’s Spanish heritage, Smith determined that the city was the perfect place for Moorish Revival architecture.


Franklin Webster Smith Villa Zorayda architect and owner
Franklin Smith in 1860

To build the Villa Zorayda, Smith utilized his innovative method of poured concrete construction by mixing Portland cement with locally sourced crushed coquina. It was the first concrete structure in Florida and the very first building of its kind. Smith’s innovation provided him with an affordable way to construct an artificial stone structure, that was not only resistant to fire, moisture, and insect damage, but one that would stand the test of time. This method of construction and architectural style went on to set an architectural precedent in St. Augustine and forever shaped the City’s built environment. It caught the eye of Henry Flagler, who used it throughout the City on his Ponce de Leon Hotel (Flagler College), Alcazar Hotel (Lightner Museum), Flagler Memorial Presbyterian Church, and Grace Methodist Church. It was also used for many other historic buildings including the Casa Monica Hotel (Smith’s Hotel) and the Castle Warden (now Ripley’s).

Gilded Age Architecture History of Villa Zorayda
Zorayda Club during the early 1900s

After 20 years as a residence, the Villa Zorayda was leased out and transformed into the Zorayda Club, a restaurant and club where the most prominent guests enjoyed dining, dancing, and socializing. In 1913, 2 years after Smith’s death, 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.

Abraham Mussallem, Museum Founder

The Mussallem family have now been the guardians of the Villa Zorayda for over 109 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. 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.

More about America’s Gilded Age

More about Franklin Smith and his aspirations for America

More about the Mussallems Ownership