If I really wanted to know, research could tell me why there was a World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1982. I guess I could even take the lazy Wikipedia way out, but I like not knowing. The strangeness adds a mystery. The World’s Fairs I recall were 1904 in St. Louis, 1893 in Chicago, 1900 in Paris. They left us with legacies like ice cream cones, the St. Louis Art Museum, the Ferris Wheel, the Grand Palais.
Knoxville left us with the Sunsphere, a gilded disco ball atop an oil derrick.
Like the closing of the Olympics, when the World’s Fair closes, there are suddenly dozens of empty buildings. A vibrant festival atmosphere is now a ghost town. Infrastructure built is dismantled. Visions of reuse and redevelopment turn into simply visions, as structures sit vacant, waiting for tenants or visitors or the wrecking ball. Sometimes, they don’t know which of the three will arrive first. Knoxville left the Sunsphere, lending its distinctive silouhette to an otherwise unremarkable small city skyline. Knoxville used the Sunsphere’s silhouette as its logo, but the tower itself sat underused, aside from an office or two and a stitch in time as a ballroom.
Since 2007, the Sunsphere’s observation deck is open to visitors for free. Just walk over to the elevator and push the up button. There is no Bee Gees music playing in the magic 75-foot disco ball, but there is an exhibit telling about the ’82 Fair.
Looking down, I tried to piece together where the exhibits and performances were, across a landscape bulldozed a quarter century before. Today, the view showcases downtown, the Tennessee River, the Knoxville Museum of Art, monstrous Neyland Stadium and the Smoky Mountains just outside of town.
The Sunsphere also had an embarrassing cameo on “The Simpsons” in 1996.