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Back in 1962, folk singer Malvina Reynolds dubbed them "little boxes made of ticky tacky." Driving along the freeway south of San Francisco, she looked up at a Daly City hillside and was moved to pen a satirical song about the suburban houses that "all look just the same."

But more than half a century later, architectural preservationists are beginning to take a fresh look at those boxy tract homes and other flat little ramblers of the period. For the first time, a 1960s ranch style house has been singled out for special honors by Heritage Homes of Petaluma, which is dedicated to saving the city's old architecture.

In September, Chris and Linda Mathies were given an Award of Merit during the organization's bi-annual Preservation Awards Ceremony for their restoration of a 1960 ranch house on Keller Street.

While not a tract house per se, the Mathieses' home is very much of its time, a single-story, 1,800-square-foot house that sits incongruously along a street of much older homes, including Victorians and bungalows.

The Mathieses bought the house in March 2010 for $509,000 and did a good job of renovating it without compromising its unique period features, said Kelly Collins, a Heritage Homes board member who oversaw the awards.

"They did a really high-quality job of restoring and making it a really beautiful modern space to live a modern life while leaving the late 1950s modern bones still intact. It's lovely."

The award was a historic moment for the organization, which was founded in 1967 to stand up for Petaluma's aging westside Victorians, which a lot of people scorned as creepy and old fashioned. Now, the group is reaching out to include mid-century modern homes that qualify as historic after passing the half-century mark in age.

"Petaluma is more than just your Victorian home. We need to try to bring in and show appreciation for people who have maintained and restored their homes from that era," said Alicia Wallace, a former president and current member of the board of Heritage Homes.

That also means drawing in more members and architecture from Petaluma's east side, which has traditionally been viewed as "new Petaluma."

Collins said those modest family homes represented the American Dream for the burgeoning post-war middle class and are part of the community's cultural heritage and history.

"There are cohesive communities built around those homes and those neighborhoods and the way they were planned and built," said Collins, a graphic designer.

Linda Mathies, a former civil engineer who now teaches high school math in Novato, said she and her husband made a concerted effort to retain the original layout of the house, as well as interior details. All the doors and hardware are original. The windows were replaced within the unadorned original casings.

Their only notable design change was removing one wall and a bank of built-in cabinets to open up the small dining area to the kitchen. They replaced the rest of the kitchen cabinets with a very simple Shaker style that looks like it could be of the period.

Even the modern Caesarstone quartz countertops in a neutral "Nougat" color evoke some of the old Formica counters of the early 1960s. The same material was repeated in the bathrooms and laundry room.

This was not the first restoration for the couple, who returned to Petaluma after moving to Florida for about seven years to be near family. They have tackled everything from an 1880s Victorian to a Craftsman bungalow, along with period houses from the 1940s, '50s and '70s.

But after struggling to live in houses designed for a different era, the idea of a practical 1960s house with closet space and an indoor laundry appealed to them.

Most of the major work done by the couple was structural or functional, from a new roof and plumbing to all new electrical wiring and heating. They did a lot of the demolition themselves to keep cost down.

"It was butt ugly. It had never been retouched or redone. But the bones were there," Linda Mathies said. "We just knew we could do something with it."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at Meg.McConahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.