The topic of weird, elaborate structures built by wealthy eccentrics has come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day—think of the Winchester Mystery House, Neuschwanstein Castle, and Hearst Castle, for instance. Today we add to that list a palace constructed in its entirety by an eccentric of modest means: a postman named Ferdinand Cheval.
The story begins in 1879. Cheval, then 43 years old, had been working as a rural mail carrier in the southeast of France for 12 years. Because his daily routine involved walking about 20 miles (32km), mostly in solitude, he did a lot of daydreaming. One day (perhaps while his mind was elsewhere), he tripped over a small limestone rock. He noticed that the rock was oddly and beautifully shaped, so he wrapped it up in his handkerchief, put it in his pocket, and took it home with him. The next day, he went back to the same spot and found lots of other interesting stones. He recalled a striking dream he’d had in 1864, in which he’d built a huge castle of stone. Right then and there, he decided to make his dream a reality: he made it his life’s mission to collect enough stones to construct that castle.
Cheval began collecting rocks on his rounds, eventually adding about 5 miles (8km) of walking per day. At first he kept the stones in his pockets, then moved on to baskets and, finally, a wheelbarrow as the size and quantity of the stones he collected increased. Back at home, he set to work arranging the stones into an ever-larger structure. He also made numerous figures of people, animals, and plants out of concrete and blended these into the creation, which was held together with the help of cement and wire. Despite ridicule from his neighbors, he continued working on the project for 33 years, and it became his full-time occupation after he retired from the post office in 1896. By the time he declared it finished, in 1912, it had grown to roughly 85 feet (26m) long, 40 feet (12m) wide, and 35 feet (11m) high. It was dubbed Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval (or Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace).
And it looks like…well, no one can really say what it looks like. Cheval’s vision had been that of a fantastical structure incorporating elements from many different architectural styles. Part of it was intended to emulate a Hindu temple; part of it is supposed to look like a medieval castle. There are also influences from numerous other cultures from all over the world. And yet, the final product—a pastiche though it may be—has an odd sort of coherence that evokes (or possibly even inspired) Dr. Seuss.
Dying for Recognition
By the time the palace was complete, it had begun to draw international attention. Famous artists visited and drew inspiration from it; it was featured in media from postcards to magazines; and people came from far and wide to see this astonishing building. Public opinion about the work and its creator eventually shifted, and Cheval himself came to be regarded as an artist of some renown.
However, even though Cheval had essentially put the town of Hauterives on the map, the city government denied his request to be buried, along with his wife, in the palace. Not to be deterred, he went back to work in 1914 on a second, smaller structure in the local cemetery. He spent eight years building what he called the Tomb of Silence and Eternal Rest. Two years after its completion—and just days after he finished writing his autobiography—Cheval died and was interred in this new structure.
Set in Stone
The Palais Idéal was declared a cultural landmark in 1969, and underwent extensive renovations from 1983 to 1993. Today, the site draws more than 100,000 visitors per year to Hauterives. An exhibition at Paris’s Musée de la Poste (Post Office Museum) in 2007 showcased artwork inspired by Cheval’s palace, and included numerous artifacts relating to its history—including the original visitors’ log begun in 1905. The centerpiece of the exhibit was a detailed one-tenth-scale model of the palace.
I wouldn’t call this structure a work of architectural genius, and its artistic merits (or lack thereof) have been much debated. But no one can dispute that it’s audacious, wacky, and impressive. Whatever drove Cheval to spend half his life collecting stones and building bizarre monuments, it earned him a place in history as one of only a few truly famous postmen.
Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on August 15, 2007.