Knoxville hosted the World’s Fair in 1982 with the thematic slogan “Energy Turns the World.” With the help of local architects, the fair organizers decided to pull our most important energy source out of the sky and into downtown Knoxville. Or at least a replica.
The “Sun” of the Sunsphere spans 75 feet in diameter, and is paneled in reflexive glass panes that are layered with gold dust. The Sun rests atop a hexagonal tower, for a total height of 266 feet.
Rising 26 stories above the skyline, the Sunsphere is an iconic remnant of Knoxville’s 1982 World’s Fair. Inside its 75-foot gold-dusted ball, the Observation Deck sat dormant for much of its post-fair life, finally refurbished and reopened in 2014.
When the Sunsphere was first opened to the public during the fair, an elevator trip to the Observation Deck cost you two bucks (today the ride is free), and there was a café up above offering a Sun-theme menu. Soon after the fair was over the Sunsphere closed to the public, and there were no more Sunburgers or Sunburst cocktails. There was a brief try at a reopening in 1999, but it didn’t last. The Sunsphere’s energy still managed to shine, featured on Knoxville team logos, postcards, stamps, even on licenses at the DMV.
Finally, after extensive renovation, the Observation Deck reopened to the public on May 5, 2014. The other floors of the globe see plenty of action too, with an Italian restaurant, offices, and rentable event spaces.
The Sunsphere is one of only two remaining structures from the 1982 World’s Fair (the other is an amphitheater across the street), and the views span a full 360-degrees of the original fairgrounds, downtown Knoxville, the Tennessee River, the University of Tennessee, and the Smoky Mountains.
The structure’s unique shape and design has attracted a lot of visitors, including Bart Simpson. In a 1996 episode of The Simpsons, Bart and three sidekicks roadtripped to Knoxville, drawn by the allure of the World’s Fair. Little did they know that the fair had been over for 14 years, and the Sunsphere’s Observation Deck – which was dormant in 1996 – had been taken over by a wig store. Luckily the new name, “Wigsphere,” didn’t stick.
Update as of August 2021: The site is currently closed indefinitely for renovations.
Know Before You Go
The Sunsphere is in Worlds Fair Park, in downtown Knoxville. The Park is open every day from 6 am to midnight. The Observation Deck is open April thru October from 9 am to 10 pm, and November thru March from 11 am to 6 pm. And admission is free.