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102 0459.JPG
General information
Type Observation tower, restaurant
Location Knoxville, Tennessee, USA
Coordinates 35°57′42″N 83°55′24″W / 35.961664°N 83.923305°W / 35.961664; -83.923305Coordinates: 35°57′42″N 83°55′24″W / 35.961664°N 83.923305°W / 35.961664; -83.923305
Completed 1982
Roof 81.07 m (266.0 ft)
Design and construction
Architect Community Tectonics
Structural engineer Rentenbach

The Sunsphere, in Knoxville, Tennessee, is an 81.07 m (266 ft) high hexagonal steel truss structure, topped with a 23 m (75 ft) gold-colored glass sphere that served as the symbol of the 1982 World's Fair.


Designed by the Knoxville architectural firm Community Tectonics, the Sunsphere was created as the theme structure for the 1982 World's Fair.[1] It was noted for its unique design in several engineering publications.

The World's Fair site later became a public park alongside Knoxville's official convention center and adjacent to the University of Tennessee's main campus. The Sunsphere remains erect directly across a man-made pond from a vacant outdoor stage. Although entering the Sunsphere was illegal for several years, it was not impossible.

In its original design, the sphere portion was to have had a diameter of 86.5 feet (26.4 m) to represent symbolically the 865,000-mile (1,392,000 km) diameter sun.[1] The tower's window glass panels are layered in 24-karat gold dust and cut to seven different shapes. It weighs 600 tons and features six double steel truss columns in supporting the seven-story sphere.[1] The tower has a volume of 203,689 cubic feet (5,767.8 m3) and a surface of 16,742 square feet (1,555.4 m2).[1]


During the fair it cost $2 to take the elevator to its observation deck. The tower served as a restaurant and featured food items such as the Sunburger and a rum and fruit juice cocktail called the Sunburst.[2] In the early morning hours on May 12, 1982, a shot was fired from outside the fair site and shattered one of the sphere's windows.[3] No one was ever arrested for the incident.[3]

The Sunsphere has been used as a symbol for Knoxville, appearing in postcards and logos. Between 1993 and 1999, the Sunsphere was featured in part on the logo for the Knoxville Smokies minor league baseball club. The 2002 AAU Junior Olympics mascot Spherit took its inspiration from the landmark.[4] It featured red hair and a body shaped like the Sunsphere.[4] On Sunday, May 15, 2000, nuclear weapons protesters scaled the tower and hung a large banner that said "Stop the Bombs." They remained on the tower for three days before surrendering to police.[5] The Sunsphere is also featured in the logo for the Hard Knox Roller Girls women's flat-track roller derby league and their mascot, Sphere This also took its inspiration from the Knoxville landmark.


The Sunsphere at night, with the Knoxville Convention Center visible in the foreground.

Although the Sunsphere is the most recognized feature of the Knoxville cityscape, it has remained vacant or underutilized for most of its post-fair life. Various proposals have been submitted to the city from time to time for its redevelopment. Many argue its relevancy as a tall structure, because it was built in one of the lowest parts of the city.

In March 1991, officials from the Pensacola Tornados of the Continental Basketball Association were looking at Knoxville for possible location and said of the Sunsphere as potential office space, "What better place for basketball offices than a giant gold basketball in the sky."[6]

A pair of failed proposals was presented to the World's Fair Park Development Committee on March 31, 1994, that sought to reopen the Sunsphere as a restaurant (similar to Seattle' Space Needle, which features a restaurant at the top of the tower).[7] The proposal from CEB Enterprises would have opened a casual dining restaurant called World's Fare Restaurant. The proposal from Cierra Restaurant Group would have opened a fine dining restaurant.[7]

The Sunsphere was proposed to be included as part of the new Knoxville Convention Center. While not physically incorporated into the final design, the Convention Center was designed with an open curve along its north edge to allow access to the Sunsphere.[8] During construction of the Convention Center, the observation deck, which had been briefly reopened by the city (still sporting the original World's Fair-era displays and explanations of the panorama), was closed while the tower was commandeered by the Knoxville Public Building Authority as offices for, quite literally, overseeing the construction of the Convention Center.[8] The Convention Center was completed in 2001.


The Level 4 observation deck was reopened July 5, 2007 to give visitors a view of Knoxville.[9] The observation deck can hold 86 people.[9] At the time of its reopening, Level 5 became a cafe with concession and an early evening drinks service. Level 6 served as an open space leased out for functions. As of October 2013, both the 7th and 8th floors are available for commercial rental.[10]

In June 2013, a patron accidentally broke an inside window. Nobody was hurt.[11] ON November 13, 2013 it was announced that Visit Knoxville would update and renovate the 4th floor of the observation deck.[12]

On August 27, 2008 the 5th floor was opened as the SkyBox bar and lounge. It eventually closed, however, and real estate investor Tony Capiello opened Icon Ultra Lounge in its place, investing $450,000.00 [13]

In popular culture[edit]

Jason & the Scorchers performing atop the Sunsphere in 1982
  • Jason D. Williams performed on top of the Sunsphere on Memorial Day 1990 as a part of Knoxville's holiday celebration and to film a promotional video for Tennessee Illustrated magazine. The resulting video appeared on MTV and Entertainment Tonight, and the stunt made front page news across the state.
  • A March 1996 episode of The Simpsons, "Bart on the Road," features the Sunsphere.[14] Bart and three friends travel to Knoxville and find that the Sunsphere has become a dilapidated storage warehouse for a wig store, known as "The Wigsphere." Nelson then topples the Sunsphere after he throws a rock at it causing it to land on top of and completely crush their rental car.[14]


  1. ^ a b c d "Far-out designs add flair to fair". Engineering News-Record. November 26, 1981. 
  2. ^ "Gate to Gate, Many Choices" (fee required). The Philadelphia Inquirer. May 30, 1982. 
  3. ^ a b "Fair structure damaged". The Washington Post. May 13, 1982. 
  4. ^ a b Hullander, Douglas (March 6, 2006). "Monumental stats; Ever Wonder?; From the Sunsphere to Sharps Ridge, some facts and figures about our local landmarks". Knoxville News Sentinel. 
  5. ^ "Bomb protesters surrender". Knoxville News Sentinel. May 17, 2000. 
  6. ^ Hyams, Jimmy (March 17, 1991). "CBA team executives to pay visit". Knoxville News Sentinel. 
  7. ^ a b Dean, Jacquelyn B. (April 1, 1994). "Restaurant groups envision Sunsphere for 'high dining'". Knoxville News Sentinel. 
  8. ^ a b Balloch, Jim (January 21, 1999). "Future of Sunsphere is up in air; Empty now, it may become function of convention center". Knoxville News Sentinel. 
  9. ^ a b Whitehead, Paul N. (July 6, 2007). "World's Fair Park main attraction reopened to the public Thursday". Knoxville News Sentinel. Retrieved June 11, 2011. 
  10. ^ Flory, Josh. "Josh Flory: Office space available in the Sunsphere » Knoxville News Sentinel". Retrieved 2014-02-24. 
  11. ^ "Sunsphere window shatters in bar accident | News | Downtown - UT News". 2013-06-28. Retrieved 2014-02-24. 
  12. ^ WBIR 11:56 p.m. EST November 15, 2013 (2013-11-15). "Visit Knoxville getting ball rolling on Sunsphere renovations". Retrieved 2014-02-24. 
  13. ^ Harrington, Carly. "Carly Harrington: Sunsphere nightclub 'Icon Ultra Lounge' opens with big city feel » Knoxville News Sentinel". Retrieved 2014-02-24. 
  14. ^ a b Higgins, M. Trevor (January 3, 2007). "Sunsphere remains pop-culture icon". Chattanooga Times Free Press. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Woodward, Martha Rose (2007). Knoxville's Sunsphere: Biography of a Landmark. ISBN 0-89826-137-6. 

External links[edit]