After having a jump start on holiday decorations with our visit to McAdenville, NC we were looking forward to seeing what St. Augustine might do for the season. Our hopes were met and exceeded by the whole historic district dressing in stands of white lights, restaurants sporting seasonal decor and homes and B&Bs looking so very inviting. The pre-holiday weeks are a great time to visit although we doubt that there is ever a bad time. The old historic section of St. Augustine is very walkable. The night we chose to stroll and see the lights was mild and the streets were crowded. Holiday trolleys with passengers singing and yelling “Merry Christmas” were rolling the streets. As for parking we were able to find a lot at the Villa Zorayda that let us stay after we finished the tour.
The Villa Zorayda is open all year for self guided tours with an audio guide. Several nights a week in the weeks before Christmas the curator and his wife lead candlelight tours of the once elegant home cum museum. Villa Zorayda stands out from surrounding buildings due to its Moorish architecture and bright colors. It was built by Franklin Smith, a Boston millionaire, in 1883, as a 1/10 scale model of one section of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. It was the first building to reintroduce Spanish revival architecture to Florida. Franklin Smith was an innovator in the use of poured concrete. His home was built mixing local coquina stone and cement in blocks made of wooden forms. Another feature of the house was the interior plaster work was made overseas using the same wooden molds used to build the Alhambra. Can you imagine a museum today loaning a valuable artifact like that for use in construction? Smith was a collector of Spanish and Middle Eastern art and antiques. After he died the home was used as a private club, speakeasy and movie set. The second owner was Edward Mussallem, a Lebanese immigrant and well respected oriental rug dealer and antiquities expert. The Villa gained fame for the private collection and was opened as a museum in the 1950s. The property has remained in the Mussallem family and the curator’s wife is Edward Mussallem’s granddaughter. In 2000 the museum was closed for renovation and artifact restoration. Reopening in 2008 just in time to celebrate its 125th anniversary, Villa Zorayda is enchanting. Whether it is the gold leaf ceiling murals, the oldest known rug ( estimated to be 3400 yrs. old) or the history, your tour will be money well spent. Normally photography is not allowed. However during the candlelight tour photos of the main plaza called the Court of Lions, after a room in the Alhambra, are permitted.
After the tour we took our tripods and headed out to practice nighttime photography. So come stroll with us and enjoy St. Augustine in her holiday finery.
MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM CHARI AND STEVE!