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The Sunsphere was built on one of the lowest spots in Knoxville, so it had to rise high to be seen.
The Sunsphere was built on one of the lowest spots in Knoxville, so it had to rise high to be seen.

The Sunsphere

Field review by the editors.

Knoxville, Tennessee

In 1889 Paris hosted a World's Fair and built the Eiffel Tower. In 1962 Seattle hosted a World's Fair and built the Space Needle. In 1982 Knoxville hosted a World's Fair and, with similar visions of lofty grandeur, built the Sunsphere: a 266-foot-high steel truss topped with an orb made of hundreds of panels of glass dusted with 24 karat gold.

The Sunsphere under construction in 1982.
The Sunsphere under construction in 1982.

The Sunsphere was described in Fair literature as a "marvel" and "a stirring symbol of our hopes and dreams." But it was not sun powered, even though "Energy Turns Our World" was the theme of the Fair. This was the early 1980s -- a low point in the U.S. for solar energy, when the Reagan administration eliminated tax breaks for solar panels (President Reagan was the Fair's grand opening guest of honor). Some Fair exhibits suggested the potential of the sun -- such as solar telephone booths whose overhead lights ran on photovoltaic cells -- but the Fair mostly favored established power sources: coal, hydroelectric, atomic.

Visitors rode an elevator to the Sunsphere's enclosed circular observation deck to gaze at the people and attractions below. Yet once the Fair ended, the most interesting thing to observe was the thing you couldn't see, because you were standing inside it. This is a bittersweet legacy of all stylish World's Fair observation towers, but it never stopped Fairs from building them.

The Sunsphere, over the years, became a subject of myth and legend. It was said that on sunny days its interior was deadly hot; that it once had a luxurious rotating restaurant; that it became a warehouse for wigs and was knocked over by a rock (This courtesy of a 1996 episode of The Simpsons). None of these were true. For decades the Sunsphere simply stood there, essentially unchanged. Visitors, if they knew about it, and if the elevator was working, could go inside and see relics from a Fair that had closed 20 years earlier.

Looking southwest over Knoxville from the Sunsphere observation deck.
Looking southwest over Knoxville from the Sunsphere observation deck.

In the 2010s a local CVB group, Visit Knoxville, took charge of the Sunsphere and eventually closed it for an extensive renovation. The old arcade-era video monitors on the observation deck (and a 246-bell carillon) were ripped out. The work continued in fits and starts until the Sunsphere reopened in 2022, just in time for the Fair's 40th anniversary.

Turn that frown upside-down with a Sunsphere t-shirt.
Turn that frown upside-down with a Sunsphere t-shirt.

Visitors today take a counterclockwise tour around the observation deck, passing a timeline of photos of Fair exhibits ("Coal: Energy Mainstay of the Future") and historical facts, such as that Knoxville had the last successful World's Fair in U.S. history. "We [the World's Fair] made a double-digit profit," Sunsphere manager Zach Morgan told us -- double-digit meaning $57. (That's right: $57.) "But it was a profit," Zach said, "so we get to count that as a win."

Souvenirs from the 1982 Fair are on display, including miniature versions of the Sunsphere in multiple sizes and styles, a Knoxville World's Fair board game, and a six-pack of Knoxville World's Fair beer. Modern souvenirs, equally tempting (and available for purchase) include the Sunsphere in a snow globe, a Sunsphere-branded Rubik's Cube (the Cube made its debut at the 1982 Fair), and a Squeaky Sunsphere dog toy that could easily double as a stress ball. Few people, Zach agreed, would feel blue after squeezing a squeaky Sunsphere.

What can you see from the Sunsphere? Zach pointed out some highlights, such as the U.S. Bank Building, the Duncan School of Law, and Mount Le Conte in the nearby Smoky Mountains. In other words, the real thrill is not what you're looking at but where you're looking from: from inside the Sunsphere, a World's Fair survivor as iconic as New York City's Unisphere and as quirky as Spokane's garbage-eating goat.

Souvenirs from 1982 include a World's Fair board game and several styles of mini-Sunspheres.
Souvenirs from 1982 include a World's Fair board game and several styles of mini-Sunspheres.

Zach said that above the observation deck there are four more floors of Sunsphere, including several rented out as offices. There's a waiting list to inhabit these unique business addresses, which come with a VIP parking spot in World's Fair Park. There are no Sunsphere apartments -- not yet, anyway. "I would love that," said Zach, imagining the possibilities. "I'd have an elevator commute."

Because of occupancy restrictions on the observation deck, Sunsphere visits are limited to 30 minutes, although Zach said that the cutoff time is flexible. "If someone wants to stay longer, that's usually okay," he said. "Visitors are what we're doing this for." It's understandable why someone would linger; there is something strangely endearing about standing inside a giant golden ball, looking out over the 127th largest city in the U.S. "On a bright morning, when you can see the mist coming off of the Smokies, it's really nice," said Zach. "It's the best view in Knoxville."

The Sunsphere

Address:
810 Clinch Ave., Knoxville, TN
Directions:
Downtown. Park in the 4-hour lot just north of the Knoxville Museum of Art on World's Fair Park Drive, then walk to the Sunsphere. Elevator to the observation level faces the lake.
Hours:
Tu-F 10-5, Sa 9-5, Su 12-4 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
865-314-0660
Admission:
Adults $5.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

World's Largest Rubik's CubeWorld's Largest Rubik's Cube, Knoxville, TN - < 1 mi.
Doomed Rachmaninoff's Final ConcertDoomed Rachmaninoff's Final Concert, Knoxville, TN - < 1 mi.
Hypnotic StairsHypnotic Stairs, Knoxville, TN - < 1 mi.
In the region:
X-10 Nuclear Reactor, Oak Ridge, TN - 19 mi.

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