It Took Over 33 Years, But Postman Ferdinand Cheval Built Himself A Palace
As a postal carrier in southern France, Joseph Ferdinand Cheval could only dream of owning a mansion. Cheval would spend his free time looking at pictures and reading books about palaces and castles.
In his postal duties Cheval would pass by a magnificent castle-like home, admiring it every day. But what sparked his imagination and lead to taking action was an accident.
As Cheval tells it:
I was walking very fast when my foot caught on something that sent me stumbling a few metres away, I wanted to know the cause. In a dream I had built a palace, a castle or caves, I cannot express it well… I told no one about it for fear of being ridiculed and I felt ridiculous myself.
Then fifteen years later, when I had almost forgotten my dream, when I wasn’t thinking of it at all, my foot reminded me of it. My foot tripped on a stone that almost made me fall. I wanted to know what it was… It was a stone of such a strange shape that I put it in my pocket to admire it at my ease. The next day, I went back to the same place. I found more stones, even more beautiful, I gathered them together on the spot and was overcome with delight…
It’s a sandstone shaped by water and hardened by the power of time. It becomes as hard as pebbles. It represents a sculpture so strange that it is impossible for man to imitate, it represents any kind of animal, any kind of caricature. I said to myself: since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and the architecture.
Cheval owned a small white house on about a quarter acre of land In the town of Hauterives. In 1879 at the age of 43, Cheval decided to make his dream a reality and build his Le Palais Idéal or Ideal Palace on his land.
Without architectural training or engineering experience and with a meager salary, Cheval began fulfilling his fantasy.
Le Palais Idéal
Every day after his postal duties were done Cheval would gather up colorful stones and sea shells he found along the road. His favorite spot was along the river where he found brilliant red stones. At first he would stuff his finds into his pockets. As the hauls grew larger, Cheval, using a wheelbarrow carted what he found back home, many times traveling six or more miles.
Any extra franc that Cheval saved went towards cement, lime and mortar. Acting as his own laborer, carter, mason and architect, Cheval spent most of his free time building his palace. Cheval said, “All my ideas come to me in dreams, and these strange dreams kept me continual at work.”
Over 26 years later in 1905, Cheval thought after finishing the east facade, that the palace was complete. The structure took 65,000 hours of labor over the course of 9,000 days. Cheval reported he spent the equivalent of about $1,000 USD towards the palace’s construction.
But it was not complete. For the next seven years Cheval proceeded to build a west facade and construct a corridor connecting the two facades, bringing the total amount of work to more than 10,000 days.
The architectural style is a bit of everything incorporating Roman pillars, mosque and Christian symbolism, a bit of Swiss chalet, Algerian, Egyptian, Oriental, and Hindu influence. There’s even a tower resembling a feudal castle. There are ornamental windows, arches and doorways throughout.
Measuring 85 feet by 45 feet at one end and 33 feet at the other, and with an average height of 25 feet and topping out at 45 feet, the palace is stunning. There are hand-carvings of quotes that Cheval put throughout the palace such as, “If you look for gold you will find it in elbow grease.”
Cheval did not live in Le Palais Idéal, but in his house directly behind it. He told a reporter from Strand Magzine in 1906, “It was not my original intention to make the palace a dwelling place for myself. I only wished to show what might be accomplished by hard work and perserverance.”
Le Palais Idéal became a tourist attraction while Cheval was still alive. On average between 50 to 100 people would visit per day and sign a guest book.
A Video of Le Palais idéal
Cheval proudly told a Washington Post reporter in 1912, “I have bullt my own tomb in the center of the building. And the sarcophagus is considered perhaps the most remarkable feature of the entire work. It is elaborately carved.”
But French law forbid his entombment within the palace.
So, Cheval then spent eight more years constructing a tomb in the local cemetery for him and his wife. Ferdinand Cheval died on August 19, 1924 at the age of 88 and was interred with his second wife Claire-Philomène Richaud (1838-1914) in the mausoleum of his own making.
Made a French Cultural Landmark in 1969, Le Palais Idéal remains a whimsical and joyous site today.