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Relics of the World’s Fair: Knoxville, Tennesse

After visiting ParisChicago, BarcelonaNew York CityMontrealSt. LouisMelbourneSeattle, and Brussels, Atlas Obscura’s next stop in our tour of World’s Fair relics is Knoxville, Tennessee, host to the fair in 1982. 

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Sunsphere (photograph by Joel Kramer)

Several years after it folded, the 1982 Knoxville International Energy Exposition in Tennessee enjoyed an unexpected 15 minutes of fame when it was featured on an episode of The Simpsons. In the 1996 episode “Bart On The Road,” after scoring a fake driver’s license, Bart rents a car and rounds up his buddies for a road trip. Milhouse finds an old brochure for the 1982 World’s Fair in the car, and the gang are wowed by the brochure’s description of the “Sunsphere,” a 266-foot tower topped with a huge gold-colored glass sphere used as an observation deck. But when Bart and friends turn up at the site, they find the fair is long since gone, and the Sunsphere is now storage space for a wig shop.  

article-imageSunsphere (photograph by Sean Russell, via Flickr)

The actual Sunsphere’s fate seemed equally dicey at the time “Bart On The Road” aired. The tower had wowed crowds at the fair itself — civic planners used the building’s silhouette on all marketing and as the fair’s logo, and plenty of Knoxville sports teams also adopted its image. 

But the local pride didn’t actually translate into support for post-fair use. Two separate proposals during the 1990s to convert the sphere to a restaurant failed. A minor-league basketball team considered moving to Knoxville and using the space for its team offices — “what better place for basketball offices than a giant gold basketball in the sky?” on person argued — but they ultimately passed.  

article-imageInside the Sunsphere (photograph by Joel Kramer, via Flickr)

 Finally, in 2005, Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam stepped in, turning the former World’s Fair grounds into a city park. The Sunsphere was reopened in 2007, and now includes an observation deck, restaurants, and displays of memorabilia from the 1982 fair.

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Sunsphere (photograph by downing.amanda, via Flickr)
 

Check out this thrilling commercial for the expo, and watch a comet collide with the Sunsphere to the catchy refrain: The 1982 World’s Fair, you’ve got to be there!

And here’s a chipper video overview of the festivities:


Stay tuned for more in our series on World’s Fair relics, and be sure to visit ParisChicagoBarcelonaNew York CityMontrealSt. LouisMelbourne, Seattle, and Brussels