Knoxville, TN: World’s Fair Park & Sunsphere

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There’s a huge gold ball in the sky above Knoxville, Tennessee.  It’s the kind of thing that serves no purpose, yet inexplicably compels you to exit the interstate, find a parking spot, and stand below it.

Location

The Sunsphere and Knoxville’s World’s Fair Park is located less than a mile from Interstate 40/75.   The easiest way to reach it is to just look for it, and drive towards it, or watch for signs for World’s Fair Park.

My Visit

Knoxville’s Sunsphere is one of only a few reminders of the 1982 World’s Fair, which are still standing.  The golden-disco-ball-topped tower was constructed as the central symbol of the event.  It stood among pavilions set up by countries around the world, as well as corporations wishing to tout ideas relating to the Fair’s theme, “Energy Turns the World”.

During the 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair, the top of the Sunsphere was used as a restaurant, then later, a museum.  While fans of the Simpsons TV show probably think they know its current use (a wig store, as Bart discovered in episode 3F17), the truth is, the Sunsphere is off-limits to visitors and most likely, empty.

The Sunsphere is 266 feet tall.  Inside the sphere, there are five levels. A proposal made in 2006 would bring back a small restaurant/bar and observation deck, while allowing three floors to be used by a private business.  But one potential problem could be the utility bills.  The Sunsphere is essentially an un-insulated glass ball, which could make it difficult to cool.  A Knoxville-based blog site explores the proposal in-depth.

The pavilions are all gone now, and the only other sign of the World’s Fair I could spot (aside from the SunSphere) was the Tennessee Amphitheater, an open-air music venue with a roof that looks like the Denver airport.  But not exactly–the Denver airport doesn’t look like it’s about to collapse. Streaks of rust have stained the amphitheater’s roof, and during my visit in 2006, it looked like some construction was taking place underneath.

An anonymous visitor writes: The Amphitheater is no longer “crumbling” and is used for concerts, including the wonderful Knoxville Symphony. The Sunsphere, far from “serving no purpose” has also been completely renovated, and now houses an Observatory providing stunning 360 views, including those of the Great Smokies, along with a film history of the 1982 World’s Fair.  There is also a restaurant, and several businesses. Knoxville’s downtown is completely revitalized with new theaters, beautiful lofts, art galleries and wonderful restaurants.  It is really a hidden gem.

Bob Sukenik writes: Southern Graces Catering & Events reopened the Sunsphere for special events, September 6th, 2007.  We have had over 25 events (rehearsal dinners, receptions, business luncheons, tailgate gatherings, etc.) since opening and we have over 170 additional events booked.  Our capacity is 318 persons.  We have a liquor license and beer permit and we can provide top quality food and beverage service. We will also be opening a self-serve lunch and cocktail lounge on the 5th floor (above the observation deck..which is open to the public) very soon.

All of the HVAC issues have been addressed and the facility works very well for events of all types.

While I’ve made fun of Knoxville’s disco ball and crumbling amphitheater, the city does deserve some credit.  The new man-made lake that runs through the middle of World’s Fair Park is beautiful.  It features a huge geyser-like fountain in the middle…

… and a waterfall at the dam on the lower end.  The city’s Convention Center has also been updated, and will certainly be the pride of Knoxville for some time to come.  Perhaps the renewed focus on the area will convince someone to find a new use, for the old Sunsphere, or at least open it to us road trippers who just can’t resist its inexplicable allure.

If you’d like to see what the area looked like, during the 1982 World’s Fair, there are several pictures available here.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.

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