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About Utah: Father of Modern Condominiums will never live in one

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 9:02 p.m. MDT

The Graystone Arms in Sugar House was America's first condominium building. Keith Romney, the man behind the idea, will never live in one because the 83-year-old's children and grandchildren take care of him and his wife, who both have trouble getting around their Salt Lake home. (Lee Benson, Deseret News) The Graystone Arms in Sugar House was America's first condominium building. Keith Romney, the man behind the idea, will never live in one because the 83-year-old's children and grandchildren take care of him and his wife, who both have trouble getting around their Salt Lake home. (Lee Benson, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Retired Utah attorney Keith Romney is considered the Father of Modern Condominiums. It was his work in 1960 that led to the first condo project in America, right here in Salt Lake City.

Romney was hired as legal counsel for developers building a 120-unit apartment complex for people ages 50 and above. Graystone would sit on the corner of Highland Drive and 2700 South.

The developers wanted to sell the apartments co-op style, like they did in the big cities, and sent their legal counsel to New York and Chicago to study how that could be done.

But after returning from his road trip, Romney, 31 years old and just getting started as a lawyer, told the developers he had a better idea. It was his belief that Westerners in general, and Utahns in particular, wouldn't be too interested in co-op-style leases.

The Graystone Arms in Sugar House: America?s first condominiums. (Lee Benson, Deseret News) The Graystone Arms in Sugar House: America?s first condominiums. (Lee Benson, Deseret News)

What would interest them would be apartments they could own, along with an ownership share in the surrounding grounds and infrastructure.

They'd call the units condominiums, and if that seemed like a new-fangled term, Romney assured everyone that it was actually old-fangled.

Romney had discovered evidence of joint ownership of dwellings that dated back to the Roman empire. On a visit to Rome, he'd personally seen the word "condominio" etched in marble in a Roman ruin.

He didn't invent the concept, he just unearthed it. He called it "an ancient new idea" and made it legal by lobbying the Legislature to pass the Utah Condominium Act of 1960.

That done, he came up with the very first advertisement for the very first modern condominium project at Graystone Arms.

Keith Romney (Lee Benson, Deseret News) Keith Romney (Lee Benson, Deseret News)

The ad was three words long: No More Yardwork.

Within two weeks, 70 percent of the units were sold. Not long after that, they were all gone.

Romney became the condo king and Utah the condo epicenter. He helped other states draft condominium legislation and worked with groups that started the first family condos (Three Fountains in Murray), the first resort condos (Treasure Mountain Inn in Park City), the first office building condos (in Arkansas) and the first hotel condos (Marriott Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Ariz.).

The wave he launched has never crested. Fifty-two years later, untold millions of condominiums have been sold throughout the country.

But there's irony in this story, the very best kind of irony.

Keith Romney is 83 years old now and doesn't live in a condominium.

Nor will he ever.

He and his wife, Janet, remain comfortably in their house on Gillmer Drive in Salt Lake City. It's the home they first moved into in 1959, a year before Americans began hearing of condos. It's the home where they raised their family.

The Romneys would appear to be perfect candidates for condo living. Keith has degenerative muscular dystrophy and can't move by himself out of the wheelchair he's been in for the past 12 years. He needs help to do virtually everything physical. Janet has scoliosis and arthritis and other things incident to age that severely limit her walking. She, too, moves mainly by electric wheelchair.

But Keith and Janet get around just fine, and not through their own actions.

Their six grown and married children, all raised in the house on Gillmer Drive, live relatively close and take care of their parents' every need. The four daughters, Lois, Jenny, Vicki and Amy, split the weekdays. They come by when their dad wakes up, get him ready, take him and Mom to lunch and spend the day. On weekends, the grandkids take their turns. And every night, without fail, the two sons, John and Brad, rotate coming 'round at bedtime to unhook their dad from his necessary medical devices and lift him into bed.

Housework? Yardwork? Everybody pitches in.

"About five years ago, the children organized this all on their own," Janet beams.

Keith adds, "I think what's significant — and thank the good Lord we could afford to have full-time care if we needed it — is that this is literally a volunteer effort.

"We live a very wonderful, very active life," he says. "I'm in wonderful shape. But I can't get in and out of bed and I can't get in and out of the bathroom."

The Father of the Condo — and the father of Lois, Jenny, Vicki, Amy, Brad and John — shows off as much of a smile as his muscles will allow as he notes the wry irony that he, of all people, hasn't wound up in one of his own inventions.

"I truly believe in the condominium concept and its validity, especially for people our age," he says. "But we'll never leave this home."

Coming up with the condo concept was a great idea. Having a family, that was even better.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: lbenson@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company