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The Sunsphere

Field review by the editors.

Knoxville, Tennessee

Claimed to be one of the first structures designed with the help of a computer, the 26-story Sunsphere was the architectural icon of the Knoxville World's Fair, which opened on May 1, 1982. Its builders were frustrated in their attempt to find a Tennessee company that could create the sphere's 24 karat gold-tinted glass, and eventually had to have it manufactured in New Jersey. When it opened, there was a Hardee's fast food restaurant in its base.

Conceived to give visitors "a glimpse into the future," the Sunsphere was abandoned with the close of the Fair. Its interior became a nesting spot for birds. Restored and reopened to the public in 1999, 2007, and 2022, it seemed to yearn for tech trends to complement its forward-looking gleam. It had arcade-era video monitors on the enclosed observation deck until 2014, when they were ripped out. A 246-bell carillon also disappeared at some point.

Obscure in its time, the Sunsphere later achieved pop culture notoriety when it was featured in a 1996 episode of The Simpsons, which claimed that it had become a warehouse for a wig outlet, and then had it knocked over with a car.


The theme of the 1982 Knoxville World's Fair, "Energy Turns the World," would suggest that the Sunsphere had something to do with solar power, but it didn't; the Fair, opened by President Ronald Reagan -- who had the White House solar panels removed -- promoted hydroelectric dams, nuclear plants, and self-service gas pumps.

The Sunsphere

810 Clinch Ave., Knoxville, TN
Downtown. I-40 exit 388. Take Henley St. south, and either follow signs or your eyes. Less than a mile. Double elevators to the observation level face the lake.
Tu-F 10-5, Sa 9-5, Su 12-4 Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $5.
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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