January, 2014. St. Augustine, Florida. Turrets, Towers and Tiles.

Posted on January 25, 2014


DSCN0334We toured Villa Zorayda this morning, and found the answer to my question: Why was Moorish Revival chosen as St. Augustine’s signature architectural style?

Of course, St. Augustine first existed as part of the Spanish Empire. However, as a City of Five Flags it contains much history and cultural influence from it’s off and on acquisition by both England and France. (The Confederate and United States flags round out the five.)

While Henry Flagler practically built St. Augustine, there was someone there before him who started the city off in grand Spanish style, Franklin W. Smith.

Mr. Smith was yet another rich northern businessman who made much, if not all, of his fortune from supplying the Union army during the Civil War.  Interestingly, his in-laws were Quakers, but following the Civil War they built and traveled to a winter home near St. Augustine. After Smith and his wife completed a visit to her parents, they decided to build their own winter residence there.

DSCN0336Smith, like many other rich men, wanted his house to stand out, both in design and composition. On his next tour abroad in 1882, Smith traveled through southern Spain and found his inspiration when he toured the 12th-century Moorish Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. He decided to build as his winter home a replica of one wing of the palace, but 1/10th of its original size.

In December 1882, Smith engaged a Boston mason to come to Florida to get started. They experimented making concrete blocks using readily-available crushed coquina along with Portland cement. Once they were satisfied with the results, they began to construct the Villa Zorayda  in courses ten inches (254 mm) tall. After 48 hours, the concrete had hardened enough to pour the next course.

The process was repeated until the desired height was reached, and the resulting structure was nearly monolithic. Like coquina itself, the material grew harder with age. To further strengthen the walls, railroad rails were inserted into each course.

Henry Flagler and his new bride came along in 1883, and in typical Flagler style he tried to buy Villa Zorayda because, well, he liked it. Smith refused, but the two became friends.

When Flagler returned in 1885 to build his Ponce de Leon hotel, Smith helped train the masons in the mixing and pouring technique he had used on Zorayda. Flagler’s hotel mirrored the architectural style of Smith’s mansion, as did the construction of his later hotel, the Alcazar.

Moorish Revival architecture became the style of choice in St. Augustine.moorish

Casa Monica Hotel

Casa Monica Hotel

In 1887, Flagler sold Smith land on which to build the Casa Monica Hotel, an impressive Moorish-style five-story tiled-roof structure with towers, turrets, balconies, parapets, cornices and arches, all composed of poured concrete and coquina.

The hotel opened on January 1, 1888 but Smith had financial troubles and was forced to sell it to Flagler after the winter season ended.

Back to Villa Zorayda.

In 1913 the building was sold,  and in 1922 was turned into a nightclub and gambling casino. It was closed in 1925 when Florida outlawed gambling, and was turned into a tourist attraction in 1936. Today, it is a museum housing an elaborate collection of Spanish and Moorish items. Many are beautiful, some are strange – including a cat hair rug dating back more than 2,300 years.

Since then, the Moorish Revival style has been loosely followed throughout much of Florida, thanks in part to Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway and his later construction projects in Palm Beach and Miami.

Posted in: Travel - Florida