A boring job will make a man do crazy things. At an office job I once had, I made a 16 X 12 pan of “bootleg tiramisu” out of free snacks from the break room: smashed Twinkies, instant coffee, and vanilla yogurt. I never thought the pure hopeless nihilism of that would ever be surpassed, but this exotic palace built from stones a bored mailman picked up on his route every day might take the crown.
The Palais Ideal took 34 years to build, and was the work of a Frenchman named Ferdinand Cheval. According to legend, Cheval was walking his mail route one day in 1879 when he tripped over an odd-shaped rock. The area around Hauterives, a small town about thirty miles south of Lyon, had been completely underwater millions of years ago, so the area has many fossils and limestone outcroppings, many of which, due to limestone’s softness, have been eroded into exotic shapes. This first rock of Cheval’s, which he called his “stumbling block,” was one of these exotic-shaped rocks. It was so exotic, in fact, that it inspired him to start work on this insane castle.
The idea had been brewing for some time. Back in 1864, Cheval had had a vivid dream about building a fantastical chateau made of rocks. Shortly after having this dream, Cheval left town for several years. Scholars have speculated that Cheval might have traveled abroad during this period, studying architecture in North Africa and the Middle East to prepare for the construction of his dream palace. (Despite having no formal training, experts have found strong Arabian and Algerian architectural influences in Cheval’s palace.)
Each day after finding that first rock, Cheval kept an eye out as he walked his 25-mile mail route. If he saw an interesting rock, he picked it up. He picked up so many rocks that they routinely tore through his pockets, and eventually his wife refused to keep mending them. After that, Cheval would mark interesting rocks he spotted and then, after finishing his route, walk along the 25-mile route a second time, with a wheelbarrow, and pick up the marked rocks. Then he’d go home and work on the Palace all night, with only a single oil lamp for light.
Hauterives was a small, rural town, so of course the townspeople gossiped about the Palace. They thought Cheval was out of his mind, until, after decades of work, the Palace started to take shape and the tourists came pouring in. Soon Cheval and the town were both famous. The finished Palace was 85 feet long and 40 feet tall, an astonishingly large structure to be built by one man. It has pillars, terraces, buttresses, and dozens of animal sculptures. Cheval was so pleased with his creation that be built a tomb underneath the Palace large enough for two coffins – himself and his wife. But the local government didn’t like the idea of two corpses tucked away in the heart of their biggest tourist attraction, and vetoed the tomb. Cheval then built a mini-Palace a mile away, to use as a tomb.
You can still tour the Palais Ideal today; many people consider it the originator of the entire Surrealist architectural style. The most impressive part of all, though, is that Cheval basically assembled this thing while on the clock at his job. Even if the final product looks a little ridiculous to modern eyes, you have to give the guy a metaphorical fist bump for pulling that off.