Once upon a time, a Frenchman named Joseph Ferdinand Cheval had a vision. And he had the passion to see his vision through. A postman by profession, from 1879 to 1912, after work, often in the dark working by candlelight, he toiled 93,000 hours over 10,000 days to build a palace. He was no architect but managed to put in as many as 10 hours per day on his masterpiece – this after walking about 30 km (over 18 miles) every day on his postal round to deliver mail in his commune, Hauterives, in the Drôme department of France.
During his beat, he would collect stones for his construction and carry them home. To build his fantasy, called “Ideal Palace”, Cheval also used river stones, fossils, pebbles, shells and lime mortar. After 33 years of work, his finished dream palace measures 12 meters (39 feet) high and 26 meters (over 85 feet) long.
The website on the history of the monument states that Cheval imagined a fairyland palace, with walls and an interior corridor that depict an incredible array of animals, including an octopus, camel, doe, caiman, elephant, pelican, wolf, bears, ostriches, flamingos and birds. But his structure also portrays giants, fairies, mythological characters and even waterfalls in a mix of architectural styles that include a Hindu temple, a Swiss chalet, a medieval castle, an Egyptian tomb and an Arab mosque, combining architectures from all continents.
Originally from a modest peasant family, Cheval only attended school until the age of 12. So where did he get his inspiration? From nature, the postcards and the first illustrated magazines he distributed as a postman.
A unique building, the Ideal Palace has inspired artists for more than a century.
Independent of any artistic movement, built without any architectural rule, the monument won the admiration of the surrealists, the artists of the cultural avant-garde movement of the 1920s who depicted unnerving, illogical scenes, element of surprise and unexpected juxtapositions. The building was classified in 1969 as a Historic Monument by André Malraux, then Minister of Culture, under the category of naive art. It is located at 8 Rue du Palais, 26390 Hauterives, France.
And as if his masterpiece were not enough, Cheval built another structure. In his words, “After completing my dream palace at the age of 77, I found I was still brave enough to design my tomb in the parish cemetery. To build it, I did another 8 years of very hard physical work. I was blessed with good health to be able to complete what I call ‘the tomb of silence and endless rest’ – at the age of 86.”
This story does sound like a fairy tale. It’s similar in spirit to another account about a passionate being who also built a masterpiece in his spare time with objects he found. These fervent individuals show what one person, alone, can achieve when they follow their dreams.