Inside the Eisenhower Community Center, up a steep metal ladder and beyond a small latch door, a group of explorers hunkered below the rooftop dome while waiting for their tour to begin. First stop: the moon.
To get there, Ron Schmit directed them to a 12-inch reflecting telescope, with a skeletal, open-truss frame. Through its eyepiece, the pockmarked face of the moon slid into view.
“You’re seeing ripples of cooled lava,” said Schmit, who has led community shows at the Eisenhower Observatory in Hopkins for 22 years.
The recent galactic tour kicked off this year’s series of star viewings at the community center, housed in the old Hopkins High School, with night shows held throughout the school year.
Long before the public viewings began two decades ago, before men in space suits landed on the moon and before nations hurled the first satellites into orbit, Lawrence Sauter was building a telescope — and knew it belonged on the roof of Hopkins High.
The school board needed some convincing when Sauter, an industrial arts teacher, first pitched the idea in 1954. The school was in the process of drafting plans for a new building, and Sauter told them the blueprints should include an observatory dome. After seeing his sketches for a Newtonian telescope to roost inside the dome, they agreed.
“The word ‘audacity’ comes to mind,” said Schmit, who shares the history of the telescope and its maker with visiting groups. “He was ahead of his time — not that telescopes were brand-new, but being audacious enough to build it on the roof of the school.”
For 60 years, star gazers have climbed the ladder to the rooftop dome to peer into the telescope, built by Sauter with the help of his shop students. When the observatory debuted in 1956, the telescope was the second largest in the state.
Throughout his teaching career, Sauter worked to galvanize interest in the cosmos.
Students like Axel Kornfuehrer joined Sauter’s astronomy club, drawn by the allure of exploring a far-flung and mysterious frontier.
“At the time, it was just so cool that we had a telescope,” said Kornfuehrer, who graduated in 1959. “It made Hopkins High School unique.”
Sauter, a lifelong amateur astronomist, built the telescope during an international rush of excitement about space. Kornfuehrer was in the club when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite, into space in 1957.
“It was exciting as all get out,” he said.
After Sauter retired in 1971, the telescope continued to be used by science classes and the astronomy club but eventually fell out of use. The school building closed in 1983 and was then converted into a community center, but the telescope and dome remained.
Sauter heard the telescope had fallen into disrepair, patched it up and then began hosting community astronomy classes in 1991, where he trained volunteers like Bob Shaw to lead public viewings.
“I took so many notes,” Shaw said. “It was firsthand information.”
After Sauter’s death in 1995, volunteers like Shaw and Schmit continued his work and now host about half a dozen public shows a month. And the telescope’s views still inspire awe.
At this year’s opening show, 8-year-old Elliott Tanner held his star map and jumped in line for close-up glimpses of planets and stars flung across the sky.
“I can see some craters on the bright spot,” he said, standing on a stepladder and squinting into the eyepiece to see the moon.
Elliott, an aspiring astronomer from St. Louis Park, has his own telescope at home. But this one held him in thrall as he learned about the man who built it.
“Sauter was a very skilled machinist with this lasting love for astronomy,” Schmit said. “The telescope’s unique design is only something that a tinkerer, like Mr. Sauter, would have come up with.”