Created by Ferdinand Cheval, a.k.a. le facteur Cheval Born 1836, Charmes-sur-l’herbasse, France
Died 1924, Hauterives, France
A four-sided castle made from concrete, lime and wire, located in Hauterives, France. Architectural styles from various time periods and countries–Algiers, China, Northern Europe–are visible in the facade.
Work on the Palais Ideál began in 1888, when Cheval retired from the postal service. It took Cheval 34 years to complete. Today the site is visited by over 120,000 people annually.
“Whatever your age, whatever you wish to
achieve, if you are courageous, persistent and
hard-working, you are sure to succeed.”
On a day in 1879, Ferdinand Cheval, a rural postman, made his rounds through the town of Hauterives. The area of Hauterives once lay beneath the sea. The landscape, as a result, is rich in fossils and porous limestone. Much of this rock has been sculpted by time and the elements. For Cheval to trip over a stone as he walked across the steep and rocky terrain was hardly an unusual incident. However, this "everyday" occurrence would come to change the course of his life.
Cheval stopped to examine what he called his “stumbling block.” He found its shape so bizarre that he decided to take it home. The next day he returned to this same spot and found more beautiful stones which he gathered up enthusiastically and carried off. This event he took as a divine sign. “Since Nature provided me with sculptures I shall become an architect and a mason (besides who isn’t a bit of a mason?). While tramping I thought of Napoleon who said the word ‘impossible’ does not or should not exist. Since then I agree with him. The word impossible no longer exists.” With these rocks of varied and fantastic shape Cheval would create his “fairy-like palace beyond imagination,” the Palais Ideál.
Delivering Mail, Collecting Stones
From this day forward, Cheval embarked on a 27-year period of collecting stones. During this time he would add an extra ten kilometers to his already lengthy 32-kilometer daily route. At first, Cheval carried the stones home in his pants pockets. When his wife tired of mending his trousers, Cheval looked into new modes of transport. For a while he used baskets, but as the stones grew in number and in weight, even baskets became impractical. Cheval needed something sturdy, sure-footed and dependable. He sought a partner capable of back-breaking work who would bear the burden without complaint. Cheval acquired a wheelbarrow and the two began a long-term and fruitful partnership.
For 30 years, Cheval’s wheelbarrow was his trusty companion, transporting rocks and materials to the garden known today as Palais Ideál. The two had a regular routine. Cheval would deliver the mail, marking stones along the way for later pick up. After his rounds, Cheval returned with his wheelbarrow and together they would see the selected stones back to his collection garden.
Humble Beginnings Lead to ‘Ideal’ End
This country postman was an unlikely fit for such an inspired task. His life until this point had been unremarkable. Born in 1836 at Charmes, Cheval had received minimal formal education. It is unlikely he had had any experience in architectural construction. Perhaps his early years in Hauterives working as a baker gave rise to the possibility of magical creation. Or perhaps it was a dream he had in 1864.
In this dream, Cheval built a rock palace: a chateau of grottoes. It was a fantastical creation, something from a foreign and faraway land. After this vision, Cheval disappeared from Hauterives for a few years. Some believe he traveled to Algiers, an experience which may explain the North African elements (the Arabian Mosque and the Algerian Maison Carrée) in his Palais Ideál. Foreign travel may instead have been purely vicarious. Cheval taught himself about the world outside through the pages and pictures in Le Magazin Pittoresque.
Putting Hauterives on the Map
Hauterives itself was a small, small world and before long everyone knew about Cheval’s little project: “The tongues started to wag in my home town and surrounding area. They quickly made their minds up. ‘He’s an old fool who fills his garden with stones.’” Accusations of Cheval’s madness would eventually shift to growing admiration. Word spread and people flocked to see the Palais Ideál for themselves. Before long Cheval’s tourist attraction had put Hauterives on the map. “I was laughed at, blamed, criticized,” he said, “but this kind of mental attention was neither contagious nor dangerous and as a result they did not find it useful to fetch some doctor of the mind. I was then free to devote myself to my passion in spite of everything.”
Cheval was incredibly proud of his architectural accomplishment. He wanted to ensure that the Palais and its creator would not fade from local memory when he was no longer around to promote them. Within the palace’s foundation, Cheval dug deep pits in which he placed two stone coffins. He intended these as tombs for himself and his wife. This idea was eventually abandoned, possibly due to city regulations or possibly because such a macabre inclusion would detract from the whimsical nature of the building itself. Cheval altered his plan and instead constructed his "Tomb of Silence and Eternal Rest" in the local cemetery, using his traditional building materials: lime, cement and wire.
The Final Words of Facteur Cheval
Cheval also wrote an autobiography. In it, he described the events leading up to the creation of his masterpiece. The title itself lauded his effort, breaking building time into years (34), days (9,000) and hours (65,000). He began his autobiography in 1922. Two days after its completion, in 1924, Ferdinand Cheval died in Hauterives at the age of 88.
Since his death, others have sought to memorialize the postmaster-architect of Hauterives. A special town meeting was called in honor of Cheval. A unanimous vote was taken to commemorate him through a bronze bust. Today, this monument stands outside the Hauterives post office, a tribute to this local legend and master of the Palais Ideál.
The Palais Ideál is maintained and open for tours daily from 9:30AM to 12:30PM and 1:30 to 4:30PM in winter and during longer hours in other seasons. It is closed December 25, January 1 and January 15–31. Times subject to change.
The Palais Ideál is located in the small French town of Hauterives, in the Drôme, about thirty miles south of Lyon, at the crossing of D51 and D538. Be sure to visit Cheval’s tomb a mile up the road and his bronze likeness outside the Hauterives post office.
“The tongues started to wag… I was laughed at, blamed, criticized. But this kind of mental attention was neither contagious nor dangerous, and as a result they did not find it useful to fetch some doctor of the mind. I was then free to devote myself to my passion in spite of everything.”
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