Alice Houseknecht Collection
One of nine children, Alice Houseknecht – at the time Alice Watson (b. 1950) – was introduced to Montauk when her family camped at Hither Hills in the 1950s. Her father, George Watson, a New York City firefighter, and mother, Alice Watson, took the children to Montauk from Staten Island for a couple of weeks each summer, when the kids would enjoy simple pleasures like square dancing and ocean swims. Eventually, the family built a small house near Montauk Harbor, where cousins would pile in with the Watson children, sleeping on army cots lined up in the living room.
Alice Watson continued to visit Montauk as a teenager, working as a “dessert girl” at Shagwong Tavern through her time in the early 1970s at Hunter College, where she studied to become a teacher. After graduating and discovering that teaching jobs were scarce, she worked at the Dock, a Montauk restaurant owned by her brother George Watson, and trained to become a flight attendant, graduating from the TWA academy in 1975.
She married a Montauk local, Steve Houseknecht, in 1976. His father, Fred Houseknecht, who had been stationed at the Army base at Camp Hero, appears in a number of photos in the collection, both at the base and moving furnishings at the Sunrise Cottages, which his in-laws, Sam and Bea Cox, bought in 1954 immediately before Hurricane Carol. The Coxes built the first motel in Montauk, called the Maisonettes, and then created their second one, called the East Deck, in 1954 by moving the Sunrise Cottages from Fort Pond Bay to Ditch Plains and building a deck to connect what used to be standalone units.
After they married, Alice and Steve Houseknecht moved into the East Deck, helping to run and maintain it while Alice continued to work as a flight attendant. After 10 years she decided to go back to teaching, earning a master’s degree and obtaining a job at the Montauk School. Sam and Bea Cox died in the early 1980s, and Steve Houseknecht and his brother, Charlie, died in the 1990s when they were only in their 40s.
Alice went on to work two jobs, teaching and managing the East Deck, until 2002, when her son, Raymond, graduated from college. She then quit teaching to devote her time exclusively to running the motel she had inherited, whose blue-collar guests were gradually transforming into a more well-heeled metropolitan elite.
In 2013 she sold the East Deck, using the proceeds to set up a nonprofit organization that supports community organizations ranging from a shelter for victims of domestic violence to a facility for hospice care to early education and cultural institutions. The motel has been razed and is in the process of being developed into private residences. Alice Houseknecht is the director of the Montauk Food Pantry and also works with such organizations as Family Service League and the Carter Center, an international charity founded in 1982 by President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynd.
Scope of Collection
The collection consists of photographs, postcards, and a brochure primarily documenting the Maisonettes and East Deck Motel in Montauk, New York during the 1950s and 1960s. Photographs include Maisonettes' owners Sam and Bea Cox, the original Sunrise cottages on Navy Road that became East Deck Motel, aerial views of the buildings' sites on the oceanfront of Montauk, and damage to the motels, cottages, and docks from Hurricane Carol in 1954. Additional photographs include Fred Houseknecht at Camp Hero and views of the Long Island Railroad in 1927 and 1967.