S.B. Fuller was a prominent Chicagoan during the 1940s and 1950s — a self-made Black millionaire whose door-to-door sales company was the nucleus of a national business empire.
Fuller is almost forgotten today, as is the spectacular, brick-and-glass, custom, mid-century modernist home he built in Robbins, a struggling working-class southern suburb that was founded by Black people.
But we’re hoping a small grant from the preservation group Landmarks Illinois provides a needed step toward saving the tattered home — owned by the Robbins Historical Society and Museum since 2016 — and shines a new light on Fuller and his legacy.
Since his death in 1988, Fuller’s story has been somewhat overshadowed by those of his Chicago contemporaries, such as Ebony magazine founder John H. Johnson. Yet his accomplishments are just as remarkable.
Samuel B. Fuller was born in Louisiana in 1905 to parents who were sharecroppers. He got his start selling burial insurance in Chicago. He founded the Fuller Products Co. in 1929 and sold soap and other items door to door in both Black and white neighborhoods.
The business grew large enough that he bought a white-owned cosmetics company and factory in the 1940s and sold its products nationwide — and for years hid the fact the company was now Black owned.
Fuller Products was a $10 million-a-year company by 1960 with 5,000 workers nationwide.
By then, Fuller also owned New York Age and the Pittsburgh Courier newspapers, an insurance company, a Chicago home appliance shop and a Bronzeville department store, the old Regal Theater and a New York real estate trust.
Fuller’s 1958 Robbins home reflected his success. The glassy one-story, 12-room house, constructed for the then-substantial sum of $250,000, was decked out with Indian wool carpeting, a maid’s quarters, terrazzo floors and draperies made of Japanese raw silk.
The home, at 13500 S. Kedzie Ave., remained in Fuller’s family after his death, while suffering from years of deferred maintenance before it was acquired by the Robbins Historical Society and Museum.
Landmarks Illinois says the $2,500 from its Preservation Heritage Fund grant program will help seal up and stabilize the house. The grant also comes with some pro bono technical assistance.
Admittedly, the grant is tiny compared with the cost of the work that needs to done overall. But the cash funds the important task of buttoning up this special place against further weather damage until more help comes along.
And this is all good by us. The chance to save an endangered one-of-a-kind mid-century beauty with such important historical ties is a win in our book.
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