The site for World’s Fair Park in Knoxville, Tenn., had already been selected when Bruce McCarty’s architectural firm was hired for the task.
It was a mess by any standards.
The 72-acre site was a railroad yard, through which one active track still ran. A linear site, it varied in elevation by 118 ft. and had 20 to 30 structures that had to be demolished.
To top that off, a creek ran through the heart of the site, causing serious design woes.
The state of the site seemed to mirror the doubt of the national press that Knoxville could pull off a World’s Fair.
But, 25 years after the event drew more than 11 million visitors to what was deemed “a scruffy little city,” those who made it possible are celebrating the feat.
“It worked out much better than anybody thought it would,” McCarty said. “It’s one of the high points of my career.”
McCarty, who at 86 still comes into the office, started designing the site and more than 70 buildings in 1977.
He and five other members of the design team talked April 26 about the challenges and successes of the huge project as the 25th anniversary of opening day approaches.
The six-month run of the fair began May 1, 1982, and the main architects and contractors were guests for a panel discussion at the state convention for the Tennessee Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors.
The meeting took place next to the fair’s theme structure, the Sunsphere, a vacant tower with a large, gold ball. The tower is being restored and the city plans to reopen it later this year.
“The original dream of the World’s Fair site is becoming a reality,” McCarty said.
The fair included exhibits from 23 countries and was built around an energy theme.
McCarty showed before-and-after photos of the plans and construction. An early plan had one part of the fair with rides like a Ferris Wheel called Fun Land located across the river. That idea was scrapped, but McCarty noted the irony of the city working on plans now to redevelop the area south of the river.
He said the original plan for the creek was to dam it, but that had to be scrapped because of the impact it would have on the surrounding area. So instead, crews, led by the project management firm Rentenbach Engineering Company, built a box culvert and a lake. McCarty called this component of the job one of its most challenging aspects.
After the fair ended, several redevelopment plans that included urban housing were debated but nothing took hold until recently.
Near the Sunsphere, the Candy Factory is being turned into condominiums, and the now-unused Tennessee Amphitheater designed by McCarty’s son is going to be restored after it was saved from demolition.
“Most fairs, a lot of them, still haven’t been redeveloped. We’ve done pretty well now. We’ve finally gotten the amphitheater, money for that, and the Sunsphere,” McCarty said. “We don’t have the amount of housing that we had planned originally.”
Don Shell, one of the architects who drew up the original plans for the Sunsphere, showed photos of the construction and talked about the difficulties with fire codes.
Shell has not been involved in the current restoration, but he’s glad something is being done.
“That was the intent all along — to have a use after the World’s Fair,” Shell said. “I think for the folks who would like to get up there, it will be neat that they can.”
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)