Wealthy Victorian Boston businessman Franklin W. Smith was enchanted by the Alhambra, a vast medieval Moorish fortress and palace in Grenada, Spain. He was also fascinated by the city of St. Augustine, Florida, and its balmy climate, which reminded him of Spain’s.
So he decided to build his family a winter dream home in St. Augustine, and model it on part of the Alhambra, in a one-tenth scale reproduction.
Smith gave his grand villa Moorish arches and columns, with notched ramparts around the top. He built a grand entrance courtyard, that he adorned with semi tropical plants and framed with white lacey “tracerie” walls. He designed it with many windows of various shapes and sizes. He then decorated it with rugs and furnishings from Spain and North Africa, as well as exotic divans, brass wall ornaments and art, antiques and artifacts from his world travels.
He named his palace Villa Zorayda, after a beautiful princess in Washington Irving’s novel Tales of the Alhambra. And when it was completed in 1883, it was the type of home sleepy little St. Augustine had never seen before.
“The whole premise was to transport you to another part of the world through beautiful architecture, paintings and furnishings,” says James Byles, who presently owns and operates Villa Zorayda as a museum with his wife Marcia Mussallem Byles. “The Victorians were enthralled by the Orient,” he says. The Middle East, peaceful then, “was very exotic,” and not accessible to most people.
Thanks to the fact that Villa Zorayda has been in Marcia’s family since 1913, the exotic, dreamlike villa that Smith and his wife Laura enjoyed still exists much as it did in the Gilded Age. Marcia’s grandfather, Abraham Mussallem, purchased Villa Zorayda from the Smith family and lived there with his family. Since the Mussallems are only the second owners, 98 percent of the contents of the building are from the original collections of Franklin Smith and Abraham Mussallem, a successful rug and antiquities merchant.
Villa Zorayda, on King Street directly across from Flagler College, has been a museum since 1933, but it underwent a massive eight-year-long reconstruction from 2000 to 2008. In the 1960s, its name had been changed to Zorayda Castle, and through the decades it started to show its age. James and Marcia were determined to restore the building to its original glory, with such attention to detail that they hired a mother and daughter restoration team to work on it four to five days a week for five hours a day for five years.
Since the museum was re-opened, visitors have been able to explore it via a self-guided audio tour, which is also offered in Spanish and French. Restoring it as well to its original name, “we strive for a factual historic tour,” James says.
Walking through its doors today, visitors can still experience the same sense of opulent Oriental Victorian splendor that Smith strove for.
In The Prayer Room, an ornate and colorful wooden curtain that hangs down from the ceiling is embellished with the saying in Arabic: “There’s no conqueror but God.” That saying is repeated 90 times throughout the villa, James says. It is repeated 900 times throughout the Alhambra in Spain. “This is one of my favorite rooms because it used to be Mr. Smith’s office,” he says, pointing to Smith’s hand carved German black walnut desk, chair and furnishings.
In the spacious entry courtyard, called the Court of Lions, the walls are decorated with white traceries made from the exact same molds that the Moors used in the Alhambra. The floor is covered with 350-year-old tiles from Spain, and the room’s colorful wainscot tiles are from 14th century Egypt. “This is where they had lavish parties, Victorian teas and dances,” James says. “That’s why they came down here. To have a good time.”
Along a second story balcony, which overlooks the Court of Lions, 21 watercolor paintings adorn the wall. Painted in 1881 by students at a school of the arts in Paris, they depict everyday life in the Middle East at that time.
In the second story Sultan’s Den, originally the master bedroom and living area, visitors learn that the villa was transformed into an upscale private club and restaurant in Smith’s later years. He and his wife leased the building out for that purpose, and it became known as the Zorayda Club. Some of the original club china is on display, as well as an original menu. The room also features a three piece settee and gaming table that the Egyptian government gave to Abraham Mussallem to thank him for loaning them his Sacred Cat Rug for the Chicago Exhibition of 1933.
The Sacred Cat Rug, on display in a special room, is 2,400 years old and made entirely from the hairs of cats that once roamed the Nile. “It was Mr. Mussallem’s prize possession,” says James. “It is the world’s oldest rug.”
In addition to housing the world’s oldest carpet, rare and unique antiques, and preserving an amazing villa from a long ago romantic era, Villa Zorayda is also architecturally significant in that it influenced the design of Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel.
Smith built his home with a mixture of Portland cement and coquina, because he wanted to use an affordable material that was fire and moisture proof. It was revolutionary. St. Augustine residents, intrigued by ads calling the building the “Enchanted Palace of the Moors,” came out to witness its construction. They watched as row after row of concrete blocks went up, and wealthy railroad magnate Henry Flagler took note, James says. Smith’s ideas inspired Flagler in 1888 to build his Ponce de Leon Hotel, now Flagler College, of the same material and in a Spanish Revival Style. Then Flagler did the same with his Hotel Alcazar, now the Lightner Museum, churches and other buildings.
The Villa Zorayda, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, changed the face of St. Augustine, James says.
“It left a lasting legacy.”