Iconic Sunsphere Getting Much-Needed Makeover

Sunsphere-Exterior-Visitors Center, rendering provided by Visit Knoxville, September, 2023
Sunsphere, Knoxville, Spring 2020

Did you know the base of the Sunsphere was originally blue? If you did not, you’re with me and in good company. If you did, you were likely here in 1982, attending the World’s Fair, and remember the impact this structure had on its visitors.

Like the iconic structures of the Eiffel Tower and the Seattle Space Needle, the Sunsphere was constructed for a World’s Fair (1982). Unlike the Eiffel Tower and the Space Needle, the Sunsphere has been woefully underutilized since its build and, for years, sat empty and unappreciated. Initially, the Sunsphere boasted a blue base to represent/blend with the sky, and the golden orb was representative of the sun. At some point after the World’s Fair, the base was painted green. No one seems to know why. (Do you?) Bringing it back to its original color and expanding on its purpose has been a goal of Kim Bumpas, President of Visit Knoxville, and many others in the community. I sat down with Kim and Director of Communications Kristin Combs to discuss what this means for the community.

Sunsphere, Knoxville, May 2014

Restoring the original PANTONE® color Classic Blue 19-4052 TCX.to the base of the Sunsphere is Phase I of what promises to be an exciting time of renovation for the Sunsphere and what it can mean for Knoxville. The work will begin by CertaPro Painters in October and should be completed by year’s end. This phase will have minimal impact on visitation and the surrounding area. The blue base will complement and bring the area’s theme full circle with the rainbow prism-painted bridge (also a project by Visit Knoxville) and the golden sphere/sun. Phase II will start in early 2024 and includes a stunning new Visitor’s Center worthy of the icon’s contribution to the community.

Newly Redesigned Sunsphere Observation Deck, World’s Fair Park, Knoxville, February 2022

In 2019, Visit Knoxville set up a fund to preserve and maintain the structure. In 2022, they instituted a $5 fee to access the observation deck. This is a mere $3 increase from when it originally opened, charging $2 per elevator ride to the observation deck. Since the Feb. 2022 reopening, 88,000 visitors from all 50 states and an additional 50 countries have visited the Sunsphere. Guests get a 360-degree view of Knoxville, explore updated exhibits, and purchase from a small assortment of retail items. At present, guests must make a reservation via a QR code.

Sunsphere-Exterior-Visitors Center, rendering provided by Visit Knoxville, September, 2023

The 3rd-floor Visitor’s Center will give a human touch to accessing the 4th-floor observation deck. From the press release: “This enclosed area will enhance the visitor experience and will include an expanded retail space, additional brochures, and visitor information, and provide a clear view of World’s Fair Park.” They expect this area to engage visitors modernly while emphasizing the structure’s history and importance.

Sunsphere-Interior-Visitors Center, rendering provided by Visit Knoxville, September, 2023

All of this is possible through many partnerships in the community and even more hard work. Both the City and County Mayors are supportive of these efforts and excited about the potential it brings to the area. “Visit Knoxville participated in the conceptual process with the East Tennessee Community Design Center (ETCDC), and through this partnership, the vision was vetted, and organizations were connected to develop the planning for both phases of this project. McCarty Holsaple McCarty Architects (MHM) is serving as architects and engineers, and The Christman Company is serving as construction manager for the buildout of the Sunsphere Visitors Center. Both organizations were involved in the original creation of the Sunsphere.”

Bumpas teased that there are more phases to come, but we (I) will just have to wait impatiently for those announcements. You can read the full press release HERE.

We would love to see your Sunsphere photos and hear your stories! Post them and tag your friends!

Ryerson Family, Sunsphere, July 2021