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What is the Sunsphere?

By Cathy Rogers
Updated May 17, 2024
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Located in Knoxville, Tennessee, the Sunsphere is a multi-level, glass-paned structure with a total height of 266 feet (81 m). The Sunsphere was built to represent the sun for the 1982 World's Fair, as a reflection of the Fair's energy theme. Construction began in January 1981, and the project was completed in time for the Fair’s Opening Day, 1 May 1982.

During the World's Fair, the Sunsphere contained five levels of usable space, including two observation levels as well as and upper and lower dining level and a kitchen/private dining level. The 360 glass panes on the sphere are coated with a vinyl film containing gold dust, which gives the structure its unique golden color. At the time of construction, each glass pane cost around $1,000 US Dollars (USD). The sphere also contains a transition level connecting the tower and the sphere and a top mechanical level.

The observation levels were open to the public, who ascended by elevator, during the World's Fair. The restaurant levels were also open and could seat approximately 300 patrons. Its unique design and height have made it a highly recognizable landmark of the downtown Knoxville area. Although never an official symbol of the city, the Sunsphere, which is also located near the University of Tennessee's Knoxville campus, has been used as part of various logos of local area organizations.

The structure has not always been in use, however, and some Knoxville residents have a love/hate relationship with it. The Sunsphere was the home of Knoxville Welcome Center from 1992-97, but prior to that use and following it, the structure has been frequently vacant. In July 2007, one of the observation levels was reopened to the public. On another level, restaurant service was restored and yet another level is open for private functions. Other levels are used as private office space.

During the years between the 1982 World's Fair and its 25th year anniversary, many suggestions have been proposed for the structure's redevelopment. Those proposals included a plan to house a basketball office for the Pensacola Tornados, multiple plans to reopen the structure as a restaurant, and a proposal to incorporate the Sunsphere as part of the Knoxville Convention Center. For various reasons, none of these proposals ever took shape until the 2007 renovation and re-opening.

The Sunsphere became pop culture when a 1996 episode of the animated series The Simpsons featured Bart Simpson traveling to the 1982 World Fair site, not realizing that the fair has ended. In the episode, Bart and his friends are told that the Sunsphere is not only closed but that it is currently a wig outlet. In retaliation, one of Bart's friends throws a rock at the golden globe and knocks it over.

In real life, the Sunsphere has been the location of various events. In May 1982, a single gunshot broke one of the structure’s glass panes. In 2000, individuals protesting nuclear war climbed the outside of the structure and camped out for three days before surrendering to police. The protesters hung a banner that read "Stop the Bombs" on the exterior of the structure. In August 2007, a local couple chose to be married on the observation deck of the Sunsphere.

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