On a bright spring day thirty years ago, President Ronald Reagan stood at a podium in Knoxville to welcome the world to East Tennessee. The 1982 World’s Fair opened on May 1st and ran through October 31st of that year. When all was said and done eleven-million visitors had passed through the brightly colored gates to send Knoxville into a new era.
Following the fair, much of the grounds that were once packed with people faded from glory. The temporary pavilions, corporate exhibits, and the giant Ferris Wheel were quickly dismantled. Several years later, the largest structure built for the fair, the US Pavilion, was razed after numerous attempts to breathe new life into it failed.
The Sunsphere remains the most visible reminder of the 1982 World’s Fair. According to the book “The Sunsphere and other famous structures of past World’s fairs”, the idea for the structure came out of a 1979 meeting. Hubert Bebb and Bill Denton of Community Tectonics left that meeting to develop the plans for the fair’s theme structure and then sell it to the fair leaders.
It is difficult to miss the Sunsphere as you pass through Knoxville. Even though it may not be the tallest building in the city, its golden aura stands out in a city not all that uncommon architecturally speaking. The Sunsphere rises 266 feet into the sky a long lasting testament to the fair’s theme, “Energy Turns the World.”
For more than two decades after the fair closed few people actually got to see the view from the Sunsphere. In 2007, then Mayor Bill Haslam opened it back up to the public after extensive renovations.
The trip up to the 5th floor of the Sunsphere is an easy one. Just hop on the elevator and enjoy the ride. Once you get there, you are in for a real treat. The view of World’s Fair Park and the surrounding city gets a special glow as you look out the “golden” windows. Even the Great Smoky Mountains in the distance seem a bit more special when you gaze at them from this distance.
Trips up into the Sunsphere won’t cost you a dime. The elevator ride is free and so is the view. Scattered around the observation deck you will find information about what you are seeing, what stood on the site during the fair, and hours of video footage shot during the fair’s 6-month run.
In addition to the Sunsphere, World’s Fair Park offers stunning fountains, a veteran’s memorial, playground, expansive lawns for playing, an amphitheater and a giant statue of a famous composer. It is a great day trip, very close to home.