If you drive down Kedzie Avenue in Robbins, Ill., you’ll encounter what looks like a spaceship that landed in the middle of a ranch house.
The Fuller House is the remnant of what was once an extensive property owned by the wildly successful Black entrepreneur SB Fuller and his wife, Lestine.
Fuller’s story is rarely told now, but in the middle of the 20th century, he epitomized the story of the self-made millionaire, and was known as one of the most successful Black businessmen in America.
Built in the 1950s, his bold mansion was designed by Chicago’s modernist architect Elmer Carlson. The original design featured a wall of glass along the front that would frame views of the couple’s pet swans, who swam in a pool across the street.
On the back, another wall of glass was designed to overlook a swimming pool — although the pool never got built. The design was partially revised and built by Carlson’s son, Richard, after the architect died in 1956.
The house has a round living room, with a ring of windows around the top and a mix of stone and glass walls.
The circular theme extends into the main bedroom suite, where the bedroom, bathroom and shower have round walls. There are modern, vertical strips of stained glass, bathroom walls featuring bold, geometrical tile and other fashionable 1950s finishes.
Today, the house on the corner of 135th Street and Kedzie Avenue is empty. Some of the paint on the front is peeling or chipped away, and the lawn is shaggy. Across the street, where the swan pond used to be, sits a BP gas station.
Although Fuller’s business, Fuller Products Company, was based in Chicago, the Fuller family lived in Robbins, said Tyrone Haymore, a leader of the Robbins Historical Society and who knew the Fullers. Robbins has long been a predominantly Black community, since its first subdivision opened in 1910 and was marketed by white developers to Black residents.
Haymore also watched as the house was built. “I would ride my bike by here,” Haymore remembered. “I thought it was going to be some kind of big department store.”
The design was preserved through the decades by the Fuller Family, who donated it to the Robbins Historical Society in 2015. At the time, the house had been empty for about eight years, Haymore said.
In January, Illinois Landmarks gave the historical society a $2,500 grant to help repair the roof of the house. The group is now trying to raise $200,000 for building restoration and are having a drive-up donation drive on May 15.
But there’s a lot of work ahead. The society has struggled to pay for property taxes and upkeep of the house, and a rehab could cost anywhere from $300,000 to half a million, according to Haymore.
The society’s goal is to create a museum dedicated to the history of the Black residents in Robbins — including NBA star Dwyane Wade and actors Mr. T and Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek TV series and movies. And, of course, the man who built the house, SB Fuller.
The self-made millionaire
Born in Louisiana in 1905, the son of sharecroppers, Fuller hitchhiked north to Chicago in 1928.
As a young man, Fuller borrowed $25 to buy soap to sell door to door, according to his New York Times obituary. He started Fuller Products Company (no relation to the Fuller Brush door-to-door sales company) in 1929.Over decades, he built a network of salespeople that started on the South Side and eventually spanned the United States. His business empire included newspapers, a department store on what’s now King Drive and Chicago’s Regal Theater. In the mid-’40s, Fuller bought his Chicago-based soap supplier, Boyer International Products. Fuller became the first Black member of the National Association of Manufacturers.
But his success hit a rough patch when the company faced pushback from both white and Black customers for separate reasons.
One of Boyer’s products, Jean Nadal cosmetics, was popular with white women in Southern states. When Fuller bought the firm from its white founders, he kept the deal quiet to keep the customer base from finding out the company was now Black-owned.
Word got out anyway, and many white customers stopped buying Jean Nadal.
That was Fuller’s first boycott. The next time, he’d be boycotted by Black customers, over two comments he made in 1963.
In one, quoted in an interview in the U.S. News & World Report, Fuller described himself as a man with a 6th grade education who made over $100,000 a year (or about $857,000 in 2021) — something only possible when you work for yourself, he said.
He went on to add that Black people “are not discriminated against because of the color of their skin. They are discriminated against because they have not anything to offer that people want to buy.”
His statements drew wrath from civil rights advocates. Boycotted by both Black and white consumers, Fuller’s businesses sank. In 1968 he made some desperation moves financially and pleaded guilty to a Federal Securities Act violation, which required repaying $1.6 million to his creditors. In 1971, his company declared bankruptcy, though it continued to limp along until he died in 1988. Lestine died in 1999.
Despite the controversy surrounding his company in later years, Fuller helped thousands of Black entrepreneurs succeed, according to his obit.
In the early 2000s, the pond section across from the house was donated to the Village of Robbins. Across the street sits the house, a reminder of the height SB Fuller reached.
Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor.
Correction: The story has been updated with the new date of the Robbins Historical Society fundraiser, which has been moved to May 15.