The Mogul in Robbins: S.B. Fuller's Futuristic House In Peril

The former home of firebrand businessman SB Fuller, one of the final commissions of Beverly-based architect Elmer Carlson,  sits empty near the corner of 135th & Kedzie in south suburban Robbins. The Robbins Historical Society is attempting to find significant funds to restore the structure and make it the permanent home for their local history museum. In its current state, the basement level of the long-vacant house is half submerged in standing water and the building faces a host of other environmental hazards.

SB Fuller, for whom the sprawling ranch was built in 1956 at the center of a large property that combined 13 adjacent lots, grew up in Louisiana and Tennessee as one of seven children in a sharecropping family before rising to become one of the wealthiest Black men in the U.S. following a move to Chicago at the age of 23 in 1928. His was a classic rags-to-riches story, having worked his way up from door-to-door sales and odd jobs to become owner of a large cosmetics company and diversified interests in publishing, retail, and entertainment.


Fuller's massive success became foundational to his personal politics, a fact that made him a controversial figure among civil rights leaders and the Black American public. Despite having gone to great lengths to hide his identity as the owner of Boyer International Laboratories, which he purchased in 1947 knowing that many white customers wouldn't continue to buy the firm's products if they were aware of the company's new leadership, Fuller claimed for much of his life that Black Americans were held back only by failure to fully embrace capitalism and that racial barriers to their advancement were nonexistent. This sentiment was also in spite of his own admission that he had been denied loans from white-owned Chicago banks that he was financially well qualified for during his early career. He was a prominent member and leader of business groups like the National Negro Business League, which put him in frequent contact with other Black leaders of his day, but his hardline Republican politics made him a philosophical adversary of figures as influential Roy Wilkins and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fuller commissioned this home near the height of his wealth and influence, when his primary company was sustaining average annual sales of $10 million and had thousands of employees scattered across the country. The '50s were also a time of massive growth for the village of Robbins, the second-oldest municipality in the northern U.S. to be incorporated by Black residents, which grew more than 500% in population during the 15 years after the end of World War II. Despite that growth, Robbins didn't take on a reputation as a landing place for Chicago's Black business elite the way that city neighborhoods like West Chesterfield did, and Fuller's home was singular among homes in Robbins in the expansiveness of its layout and the bespoke nature of its design. Most housing in Robbins was of a rural working class character prior to World War II, and shifted toward typical middle class suburban tract housing in the postwar period.


Fuller's fortune would decline significantly during the 1960s as a result of boycotts from two directions. First, white supremacist "Citizens' Councils" of the south had finally discovered that he owned several popular cosmetics brands and organized fiercely to have them dropped from white-owned store across the region.  Despite this, Fuller continued to insist publicly that race was not and would never be a factor in his success or failure as a businessperson, and became ever more combative toward other Black leaders at a critical time for the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, during a speech given to the Congress of American Industry, he ignited a firestorm by proclaiming that Black Americans “lack initiative, courage, integrity, loyalty and wisdom”, and found himself at the center of further boycott activity from Black customers. The resulting financial spiral would see him sell of most of his non-cosmetics business interests and navigate his primary company into bankruptcy by 1971.


Though highly controversial for his politics and seemingly antipathic public statements toward fellow Black Americans, Fuller was known to be personally generous and had a strong network of mentees, friends, and admirers who remained influential in Black civic and business circles (like John H. Johnson of Johnson Publishing Company and George E. Johnson of Johnson Products Company). Following the bankruptcy of Fuller Products, Fuller was able to rebuild his business into a smaller but profitable form with financial and logistical help from this network, eventually handing the reins to longtime protege Joe Dudley and officially retiring in 1976. When Dudley combined multiple businesses into a new one under his own last name in 1980, Fuller came out of retirement to re-launch Fuller Products not as a manufacturer but as a cosmetics distributor, with operations in nine cities by the time he passed away in 1988.


Fuller's custom home, just over three decades old at the time of his death, was maintained for awhile by descendants, but eventually fell out of use and into disrepair.  By that point, Robbins had begun to experience significant population decline following the collapse of industrial employment on Chicago's far south side and in its south suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s. Part of the challenge facing the Robbins Historical Society in its goal of restoring the structure is that the Robbins itself, never a wealthy village, has fewer residents today than at any time before 1950 and only a relatively small group of locals with significant enough personal money to contribute large sums to such an effort. A GoFundMe launched by the Society two years ago has only raised $4,790 of its $200,000 goal to date, and while the structure has security cameras and new locks in place to deter human forms of harm, it continues to face growing water and mold problems as its current stewards attempt to navigate grants and other sources of funding to bring it back to life. It will take much more than $200,000 to resurrect the SB Fuller House to its midcentury glory, but combination of physical decay, minimal local funding availability, and the ambiguous reputation of the man at the center of it all means that the results of those efforts remain very uncertain.