The first annual “Tribute to the Sunsphere” was held at the Knoxville’s most recognizable landmark on July 28th. The event and luncheon were hosted by Southern Graces and Event Planners, with radio talk show host Bill Lindley acting as Master of Ceremonies. Numerous local candidates and office holders were in attendance (including Sherriff JJ Jones, and the mayor of Knoxville during the 1982 World’s fair, Randy Tyree), as well as youngsters from the Emerald Youth Foundation, Martha Rose Woodward (author of “Knoxville’s Sunsphere Biography of a Landmark”), and members of the general public. After Chaplain Bruce Spangler’s reverent prayer, the Salute America: There’s a Winner in You, Extra Effort Award was presented by Mr. Lindley to the event’s guest of honor, Sunsphere architect William Denton. With support from Senator Tim and Allison Burchett, copies of Ms. Woodward’s book were presented to the Emerald Youth Foundation attendees.
The audience was enthralled by the stories of struggle told by William Denton, an east Tennessee native who worked as the chief architect for the sphere. Taking inspiration from structures such as the Crystal Palace in England and the Space Needle in Seattle, as well as from the sun (the 1982 World’s Fair was originally called the Knoxville International Energy Exposition), Mr. Denton and co-architects Hubert Bebb and Don Shell created images of possible theme structures. Their firm, Community Tectonics, persevered through late hours, financing difficulties, building code challenges, poor soil samples at the site, and hundreds of other issues. The Fair Committee gave approval for the Sunsphere concept on March 14th, 1980, and all loans for the privately-funded structure were approved on August 12th of that year. Mr. Denton credited many with making the Sunsphere happen, but gave particular credit to Jesse Barr, who coordinated the financing. Eighteen months were now left to officially design and build the Sunsphere.
The Sunspere is the first heated and cooled spherical building on the planet, and Mr. Denton described it as an “icon to the city”. The sphere has a 74 foot radius, and no piece of steel used in its construction was “custom”. The perfect dark blue color paint was needed for the exterior of the structure; Mr. Denton took multiple pictures of the east Tennessee skyline, and fourteen different blues were selected and compared. The 360 window panes were a particular challenge to locate, and were created with the safety of visitors at the forefront. The panes below the equator are laminated on the inside, and tempered on the outside. The panes above the equator are the opposite. There is also 14 karat gold in the glass. The structure is anchored to a large wheel underground, so while the Sunsphere will move slightly in a storm, there is enough weight at the bottom to keep it upright.
The Sunsphere is now owned by the city of Knoxville, and is a public building for the residents to enjoy. Mr. Denton concluded his presentation, and former mayor Randy Tyree and Sunsphere project participant Jesse Barr joined Mr. Denton at the podium for an enthusiast round of applause from the attendees. For those interested in a thorough and highly enjoyable history regarding the structure, Martha Rose Woodward’s 2007 book is recommended.
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