On a sunny day in 1974, a bus driver in Nanafalia, Alabama, (population 94) didn’t show up for work. A gregarious 17-year-old student named Wallace Tutt decided to fix the problem. He volunteered to drive the bus, and whoever was in charge thought that was a great idea.
Thirty-six years later, that same spirit of selflessness and joie de vivre was reflected on another bus, this one full of Bahamian citizens who worked at Tutt’s boutique hotel on Harbor Island. Tutt’s employees rode 12 hours from Miami to Nanafalia Baptist Church, where they joined at least 1,000 others at his funeral.
The life J. Wallace Tutt III lived between those two bus rides is so fascinating it’s almost unbelievable. Wallace attended the University of Alabama, where he, a college student, owned a popular bar called Lee’s Tomb. During that time, he also began renovating houses, a hobby that would ultimately become his career. After graduating from Cumberland Law School in 1983, Tutt moved to Mobile to clerk for Lyons, Pipes & Cook.
“He got very bored with law very quickly, but that’s not terribly unusual,” says Dan Cushing, who worked with Tutt at the firm. “What was unique about Wallace was he didn’t play by the rules everyone else played by. He built a house on Ono Island and commuted from Ono to Mobile. While it was being built, he lived at the Riverview Plaza Hotel. It would be bizarre for a 65-year-old multimillionaire to do that, much less a 25-year-old first-year lawyer.”
During his time in Mobile, Tutt drove a white Porsche 911. Cushing remembers happily swapping cars with Tutt a few times.
“He would come to me on a Friday and say, ‘Can you do me a big favor? I need to borrow your Blazer. I need to trailer a boat. Can we switch cars for the weekend?’” Cushing remembers. “Many people get jealous of people who are wealthy, but Wallace didn’t offend anybody. He lived this crazy life, but everyone liked him. No one was jealous of Wallace — they were in awe of him. He was like a kid in a candy store about everything he did and everyone he met.”
Tutt left Mobile in 1984 and moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. While there, he obtained a real estate license and began renovating homes in Georgetown, eventually creating his own real estate brokerage, Tutt, Taylor & Rankin, which still exists and is currently one of the largest brokerages in D.C.
During his time in Washington, Tutt renovated Swann House, a run-down Victorian mansion, and made it his primary residence. The project made the cover of Architectural Digest, establishing him as a serious designer.
“He turned it into a showplace — it was very timeless and formal,” says lifelong Mobilian Trent McGuire Bullis, who met Tutt at the University of Alabama and remained close friends with him. “I was also living in D.C. at the time, working on Capitol Hill, and Swann House was the scene of many amazing events and parties. He became involved with civic groups and associations and would host business dinners, birthdays and parties for parties’ sake. It became the go-to place for all of Wallace’s friends. He had so many. He was the total package — handsome, fun, hilarious, engaging, helpful, kind, generous and mischievous. Wherever Wallace was, was where you wanted to be.”
As Tutt became well-known in D.C. and beyond, Bullis said she was surprised he still remained an attentive, loyal friend.
“I was hardly making a dime on the Hill, and I moved into an apartment around the corner from Wallace. It was dilapidated. One day, some painters just showed up at my front door and said, ‘Mr. Wallace sent us to paint the apartment.’ That’s the kind of heart he had. He went above and beyond the call of normal friendship.”
The Stars’ Designer
The Swann House renovation earned Tutt the admiration of legendary designer Gianni Versace, who enjoyed providing opportunities to talented newcomers. In 1992, Versace interviewed Tutt over the phone and hired him to spearhead the renovation of his massive mansion in Miami that would become the third most photographed home in America, bested only by the White House and Graceland.
Tutt left D.C. to pursue the Versace opportunity. He lived inside the mansion for three years as it was being renovated, overseeing every piece of the project.
“Wallace was in charge of the demolition, construction and renovation. He and Gianni designed it together,” Bullis says. “He invited some of us to come down there in the middle of the project while Gianni was in Italy. We would dance and do cartwheels through the house. He always made sure his friends felt included and in-the-know. It was always an adventure.”
After finishing the Versace Mansion project, Tutt’s name flooded design magazines all over the world. Cher reached out and hired him to finish a home in North Miami Beach. In 1999, Cher sold the home to Barry Schwartz, cofounder of Calvin Klein. Wallace’s second project for Cher was a home in Malibu, which sold to Jay-Z and Beyoncé for $40 million.
In addition to building and renovating private residences for the uber-wealthy, Tutt completed historic restoration projects, such as the Johnson Avenue Lofts in D.C. and the historic Angler’s Hotel in Miami.
Celebrities continued to reach out to Tutt until his death.
Hospitality on Harbor Island
In 1995, Tutt fell in love with the Bahamas. He purchased two tiny islands in the mid-’90s and rented them out to celebrities who wanted to vacation in privacy. In 2002, he purchased the run-down Rock House on Harbor Island and turned it into a sought-after boutique hotel.
Even a decade after leaving Mobile, Tutt still remembered his friends and kept in touch. Toni and Braxton Counts visited Tutt twice in the Bahamas and were astounded at his hospitality and generosity.
“His whole life was nothing but giving,” Toni says. “We were on his plane flying to Harbor Island one time, and he said, ‘Where do you want to go? I’ll take you anywhere.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Wallace. I know with your big heart, people have to use you. Please don’t let people use you.’ None of my friends had ever met Wallace, but they all knew who he was. I couldn’t stop talking about him.”
Friends say visiting Tutt at Harbor Island was an unforgettable experience. Warren Butler, also a colleague at Lyons, Pipes & Cook in the ’80s, visited Tutt on Harbor Island in 2003.
“We once were having cocktails,” Butler says, “and Wallace wasn’t ready to go home, but he had his potcake dog (a mixed breed native to the Caribbean) with him. So, he put $20 in the dog’s collar and told him to go home. We watched the dog run down to the ferry and hop on. The ferry driver knew to take the dog back to Wallace’s private island.”
Tutt was consistently genuine no matter the company he kept.
“Wallace never changed, no matter who he was around,” Bullis says. “He was solid in business and friendship, and he perfected the art of storytelling, but he never lied. One of his big sayings was ‘Never ruin a good story for the lack of facts.’ He treated everyone equally. He was friends with all these celebrities, but he’d throw his employees and their wives birthday parties. All the Bahamian children on the island knew him by name. Wallace was very quick to call out anyone who acted hoity-toity.”
In 2009, Tutt published “Harbor Island,” a coffee table book full of photography and information about his beloved home. All the proceeds benefitted schools, nonprofits and animal rescue organizations on the island and surrounding communities. It was released in 2010, just months before he died unexpectedly at only 53 years old.
Tutt had three funerals — one in Nanafalia, one on Harbor Island and one in Miami. In Miami, Tutt was eulogized perfectly with a simple statement.
“Whoever said the phrase ‘everyone can be replaced’ never met Wallace Tutt.”