The story begins in 1879. Joseph-Ferdinand Cheval (1836 - 1924) , then 43 years old, had been working as a rural mail carrier in the southeast of France for 12 years. Because his daily routine involved walking about 20 miles (32km), mostly in solitude, he did a lot of daydreaming. One day he tripped over a small limestone rock. Astonished by its shape and form, he took the stone home. Soon he started to collect stones during his walks to deliver letters and brought them home in his pockets. Collecting stones became an addiction. When his wife became tired of mending his pockets, he changed the mode of transportation and took a basked with him, and later when the stones became bigger he took a wheelbarrow.
Over the next 33 years he and his wife constructed, from the stones, one of the oddest monuments of all time, the ideal palace or Palais Idéal. By his count it took more than 9,000 days or 65,000 hours and it still brings about 100,000 visitors a year to the otherwise forgettable village of Hauterives north of Valence. "I wanted to prove what willpower can achieve," Facteur Cheval wrote.
The completed work was 26 meters, or 85 feet, long, with a height that varied from 8 to 10 meters. The Palais is a mix of different styles with inspirations from Christianity to Hinduism. A version of a Hindu temple stood next to a Swiss chalet which stood next to the Maison Carrée in Algiers which stood next to a medieval castle, and somewhere in between there was an Arab mosque. The tutelary spirits of the place, the facteur declared, were Julius Caesar, Archimedes and Vercingétorix.
By the time the palace was complete, it had begun to draw international attention. Famous artists visited and drew inspiration from it. It was featured in media from postcards to magazines and people came from far and wide to see this astonishing building. Public opinion about the work and its creator eventually shifted, and Cheval himself came to be regarded as an artist of some renown.
However, even though Cheval had essentially put the town of Hauterives on the map, the city government denied his request to be buried, along with his wife, in the palace. Not to be deterred, he went back to work in 1914 on a second, smaller structure in the local cemetery. He spent eight years building what he called the Tomb of Silence and Eternal Rest. Two years after its completion—and just days after he finished writing his autobiography—Cheval died and was interred in this new structure.
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