In A Nutshell
Ferdinand Cheval was born in France in 1836, and in 1879, he tripped over a rock. It was a life-changing experience, as he picked it up, took it home, and started building a palace. Every day for the next 34 years he would collect stones while walking his postal route, and would eventually build a massive castle from his stones and pebbles, one that eventually got the attention of artists like Pablo Picasso and now welcomes about 120,000 visitors each year.
The Whole Bushel
Until he was 43 years old, Ferdinand Cheval was like your ordinary small-town French citizen. He was born in Charmes-sur-l’herbasse in 1836, and led a relatively uneventful life by all accounts. He left school when he was 13, got married, and delivered the mail around his tiny town. Life was good.
In 1879, Cheval was walking his mail route when he tripped over a rock. Instead of just brushing it off as a clumsy accident, he picked up the rock. He said later that it was that single rock that was his inspiration. He thought the shape so oddly beautiful that he took it home with him, and became obsessed with it.
The next day, he stopped at the same place on his route. There were more breathtakingly beautiful rocks, and he picked those up, too. They were the additional inspiration for what would become his life’s work.
Cheval was going to build a palace.
The rocks reminded him of a dream, one that he’d had when he was still young, in 1864. In it, he had built a chateau out of rocks just like the rock that he’d found while walking his mail route. After he’d had the dream, he disappeared for a few years. It’s not known where he went for those years, but it’s been surmised that wherever he was, he brought back some ideas for the magical, mystical palace he was going to build.
And it wasn’t going to be just any palace. This one was inspired by the Bible, by Arabian and Algerian architecture, and by fairy tales. It would take 34 years and about 65,000 hours of work, but he would build his palace. He continued his mail route as he worked on it, collecting more and more stones every day and bringing them back to add to his architectural masterpiece. Eventually, he started taking a wheelbarrow with him on his postal route.
He started by building a fountain, then added on a cave. Soon following that was an Egyptian tomb, oriental pagodas, an Egyptian temple, and The Three Giants, which were similar to the Easter Island statues. There’s a Tower of Barbarism, a Spring of Life, a Temple of Nature. Motifs reminiscent of the Book of Genesis decorate the north face.
Then there’s the Hindu Temple, a Swiss chalet, a medieval European castle and a mosque. Originally, he had intended to build tombs for himself and for his wife; the tombs were completed, but the couple was never laid to rest in them.
It’s all elaborately decorated, with his alcoves and niches, sculptures, and gardens.
There’s little question as to why Cheval named it the Ideal Palace. Built one stone at a time and cemented with limestone, wire, and cement, Cheval succeeded in creating a masterful work of art with no training in architecture, masonry, or any kind of construction. This labor of love has allowed him to cheat death in a way, and more than 120,000 people come each year to visit the palace that he was once ridiculed for building.