We all have our hobbies, little ways we waste our free time pursuing what we want to do. For many this might involve completely frivolous pursuits, such as watching TV or playing video games, maybe just sitting around spacing out staring at the wall. Yet for others, an urge comes over them to do something truly weird and crazy, to fully devote themselves to some odd endeavor that others may not understand. One of these must surely be the time a humble postman in France decided to spend over three decades building an amazing palace out of rocks he found just lying around on the ground.
At first there might not seem to be anything special or remarkable about the life of Ferdinand Cheval. Born in 1836 to a poor farming family in the Charmes-sur-l’Herbasse region of France, he would drop out of school at an early age to become a baker’s apprentice before going go on to become a humble postman. His life was fairly content and ordinary, and he might have been forgotten by history entirely if it wasn’t for one extraordinary day when he received a vision that would propel him into a cultural phenomenon. It all began with a vivid, surreal dream. One night Cheval had an intense dream in which he was building an immense, perfect castle, and it was all in such detail that he could see every single stone and its placement. During this dream he felt that this was real, and he had an overwhelming sense that he was meant to build this place.
Upon waking the dream would linger in his head for years before beginning to fade away, yet 15 years later it was sparked back into his mind one day in 1879 as he was walking along his rural, 18-mile post route. As he walked he tripped and almost fell over when his foot hit a rock lodged in the ground. The stone was an odd shape, and he would say of it:
One day in April 1879, I was doing my rounds as a rural postman a quarter of a league before reaching Tersanne. I was walking quickly, when my foot caught something that sent me tumbling a few meters away. I wanted to know what had caused it. I was very surprised to see that I had brought a stone out of the earth. It was of such a bizarre and yet picturesque shape that I looked around me. I saw that it was not alone. I took it and wrapped it in my handkerchief and carefully took it away with me, promising myself to take advantage of the free time that my rounds would leave me to set in a store of them. 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.
The next day he went about gathering as many stones as he could carry along his route, and his obsession was fueled as his dream of his perfect castle came back to him and his collection of rocks grew. At first he stuffed his pockets, but then he began taking a basket along with him every day to help him carry more of the stones, after this graduating to bringing along a wheelbarrow to haul around all of these rocks. These stones he would take back to his garden, and when he had accumulated enough, he started constructing the palace of his dreams, what he called the Palais idéal one rock at a time. He had no experience with building, architecture, or construction, yet he started out on his journey by fashioning a simple waterfall of stones, which would go on to become the beginnings of his grand vision. He would write:
From then on, I had no rest day or night. I set out to find some more. Sometimes I did 5 or 6 kilometres and when I was loaded up I carried them on my back. I began to dig a pool in which I started to sculpt different species of animal with cement. Then I started to make a waterfall with my stones. It took me two years to build. Once it was finished, I was amazed with my work. Criticized by the locals, but encouraged by foreign visitors, I did not lose heart. I had discovered other stones, each more beautiful than the other, in Saint-Martin-d’Août in Treigneux, and in St-Germain. They were like little round balls. I set to work.
He would proceed to spend the next 33 years of his life collecting stones, rocks, and boulders and working day and night meticulously crafting his castle, binding it all together with homemade cement, lime and mortar. Not completed until 1912, the castle would ultimately measure 33 feet tall (at its highest point) and 85 feet wide, and look like something out of a fairy tale. It includes giant support beams, columns, two waterfalls, spiral staircases, plaques and mosaics, many-tiered towers, spires, walls, and soaring ceilings, all populated by numerous statues of animals and mythological creatures and adorned with various engravings, including one which reads “1879-1912 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of struggle. Let those who think they can do better try.” Cheval liked it so much that he wished to be buried within his creation, but the French government forbade it, so he spent another 8 years gathering more rocks and building a mausoleum, as well as a full size Hindu temple because why not, at the in the Hauterives cemetery. He would say of this tomb and temple:
Still more delighted with my work, the idea then came to me that with my little round balls that I had found in St-Germain, Treigneux, and St-Martin-d’Août I could make myself an Egyptian tomb whose style would be unique in the world, and be buried in the rock just like the pharaohs. I started digging into the earth and I formed a kind of rock, and in this rock I dug coffins. These coffins are covered with tiles that you can remove at will, themselves closed off by a stone door and an iron one. On this underground rock, I built the monument that is twelve feet wide and fifteen feet long. The monument is supported by eight walls made of stones that have the most picturesque shape. The facades of the east and north are each supported by four columns that bear the serrations of the monument. In the middle, a beautiful stone wreath made with small round balls.
Above, the Virgin Mary’s cave, with the four Evangelists, two on each side. A cross with angels holding crowns, and pilgrims. Further up, a second crown with a mortuary urn, and above the urn, a little Genie. This monument is over 30 feet high. You reach the top via a spiral staircase. I worked night and day for another seven years to finish it. I carried my stones on my back, sometimes 15 kilometres, mostly at night. Still to fill my spare time and for the symmetry of the monument, I wanted to add a Hindu Temple whose interior is a real cave, and this cave forms several small ones and in these small caves I placed the fossils I had found in the earth.
The entrance is guarded by a group of animals such as: a bear, a boa, a crocodile, a lion, an elephant and other animals of this kind always found in the earth, and also tree trunks. On the other side, three giants and two mummies, all Egyptian, and above there are two prickly pears, palms, olives and an aloe. You reach the top of the tower by a spiral staircase. At the entrance of the staircase are four barbaresque columns. I took another four years to build this Hindu Temple.
It is all very impressive, encompassing many artistic and architectural styles, and all of it was built with what he gathered himself, with his own hands, and all completely self-taught. Not a well-travelled man, many of these designs and influences Cheval had never even seen before outside of pictures in the newspapers and magazines he delivered in the mail, but he pulled it all off beautifully. It was all so incredible that during construction he was known to draw crowds of curiosity seekers, and he gained the attention and praise of artists such as poet André Breton and painter Pablo Picasso. What had begun as a half-forgotten dream and chance discovery of a weird looking rock had over decades become a sprawling, immense and ornate castle exerting great cultural and artistic influence across France.
Cheval would die on August 19, 1924 and be buried in his beloved mausoleum, after which his legend grew amongst artists and architects, especially surrealists, who came in droves to look upon his labor of love. In 1969, André Malraux, the Minister of Culture, declared Cheval’s palace a cultural landmark, and the structure continues to draw in over 100,000 visitors a year. What drove Cheval? What made him so fully devote himself to this endeavor that lasted nearly a lifetime and required true devotion from beginning to end and become an iconic landmark in France? How is it that this uneducated, untraveled man managed such a feat of architecture all by himself? It is all truly a weird historical oddity and testament to the human will to follow trough no matter what the odds. What did you do with your free time today?