The Former Residence of Prince Gong, or Gong Wang Fu in Chinese, covers roughly six hectares and consists of two parts: the "palatial", siheyuan-style building compound, which also typically consists of courtyards and gardens, including flower and kitchen gardens (for a better understanding of the layout of the siheyuan compound, click here); and the main garden - or garden-park - which also consists of pavilions and other building structures.* The Former Residence of Prince Gong is Beijing's largest and best preserved Qing (1644-1911) Dynasty residence belonging to a member of the imperial family.
The residential palace that bears the name of Prince Gong was not originally built for the prince; it was built for a favorite minister of Emperor Qianlong, whose reign (CE 1735-1796) took place during the last dynasty of China's imperial era, i.e., during the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty. The rise and, alas, fall of Minister He Shen, on whom much favor was bestowed by the emperor, was inextricably linked to the rise and fall of Emperor Qianlong; when the emperor was replaced (Emperor Qianlong enjoyed a very, very long reign (no pun on the name intended), and died of old age only four years after having ceded the imperial palace to his successor - and son - Emperor Jiaqing), a reckoning was inevitable, and thus He Shen was executed, ostensibly for corruption, in the same year (1799) that his "patron saint" and former employer, Emperor Qianlong, died, and He Shen's magnificent palace was confiscated and given to another of Emperor Qianlong's sons (he had 17!), the youngest, Prince Qing Junwang.
A half century later, in 1851, ownership of the former palace of Minister He Shen passed on to the next emperor, Emperor Xianfeng, who assigned it to his brother, Prince Gong Qinwang, and thus the former residence of Minister He Shen came to be known by posterity as the Former Residence of Prince Gong, which name has perhaps a better ring to it - pun indeed intended - than the name of "Former Residence of Minister He Shen". In any case the name stuck, and the palace remained in the Gong family for several years beyond the collapse of the Qing Dynasty; ownership of the former palace was transferred from the grandson of Prince Gong in 1921 to the Catholic Church as collateral for a loan, as part of a desperate attempt to restore the imperial monarchy (as is so often the case, divergent political groups that temporarily unite for a single purpose typically fall into disarray once the initial and temporarily unifying goal is achieved, the goal in this case being the ousting of a dynastic governing structure in favor of a republic).
The palace was thereafter purchased by the Catholic University of Fu Jen (the former Fu Jen Academy) on present-day Taiwan, and dubbed the Catholic University of Peking ("Peking" being the Western pronunciation at the time for Beijing). After the formation of the PRC, the palace was again confiscated, its buildings to serve thereafter first as Beijing Normal University, then the Chinese Music Academy. The "palace" even served for a short while during the Cultural Revolution as the Beijing Airconditioning Factory (!).
The palace was finally recognized as a site of national cultural heritage by the government of the PRC in 1982, and it was gradually restored to its former glory. In 1988 the former palace's garden-park was opened to the public. In 1996 the restoration of the former palace's building structures was also complete (the buildings had been ravaged by fire in the early part of the 20th century, following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, and had to be reconstructed with the help of historical documents and photos), and the illustrious Former Residence of Prince Gong was reborn, open to the public as another popular tourist attraction of the captial city. (As a postscript for the curious, the Catholic University on present-day Taiwan, today called Fu Jen Catholic University, remains alive and well, and may someday (who knows?) - that is, after reunification takes place - at least be given a role to play in the way the cultural heritage of the Former Residence of Prince Gong is to be expressed for future generations.)
Present-day visitors to the Former Residence of Prince Gong will see many rockeries - including some bizarrely-shaped rocks from the bottom of Lake Tai, which strangely-eroded (via naturally-occurring, mildly-acidic carbonic acid) sandstone rocks also form the rockeries of Lion Grove Garden in the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province farther to the south - as well as pavilions, halls, and other features typical of the garden-parks of southern China. But there are Western architectural influences here as well, for example, the Western style main gate, which is considered to be one of the three most distinguishing features of the former palace.
The government's long-term plans with the Former Residence of Prince Gong is to preserve it as a museum piece, as it were, showcasing the archtypical Chinese palatial residence during the Qing Dynasty period. But the former palace is more than just a museum over Qing Dynasty palatial architecture and landscaping, it also serves as a venue for art exhibitions. For example, in 2008 the palace hosted two major art exhibitions, one entitled "Echoes of the Palace: An Exhibition of Works by Trans-Straits Artists", which showed numerous paintings by mainland Chinese and Taiwanese-Chinese artists, including portraits of historical personnages who had lived in the former palace; and the other entitled "China and Denmark: Anno 1600 to 2000", which included works, many related to China, from Denmark's Frederiksborg Museum of National History.
* One hesitates to use the word "palace", and its derivatives (and the word "mansion" is hardly better suited), to describe an Imperial Chinese residence - or indeed, any large, conspicuously-opulent Chinese residence such as the type built by wealthy merchants - however large the residence may be. The Chinese building style, even at the royal, or imperial, level, cannot be compared to the European palatial style, which is characterized by enormous - and often enormously towering - concrete and brick structures with ostentatious, Greek-influenced facades, and which generally make no attempt to reconcile themselves with the surrounding landscape (indeed, the typical European mansion forces nature, in the form of a perfectly designed and perfectly manicured garden, to reconcile itself to the mansion's buildings).
This style is in sharp contrast to the Chinese building style, as characterized especially by the siheyuan courtyard compound, which is more "holistic" in the sense that buildings and nature form a balanced whole, and where the architect takes mother nature - at least her topography - as given and then reconciles the buildings to her (this does not mean that the Chinese never "fiddle with mother nature", for artificial lakes, rockeries, etc., abound in large Chinese garden parks). For lack of a better term, I therefore use the word "palace" and its derivatives in the above to describe the Former Residence of Prince Gong.