The most conspicuous feature on Knoxville's skyline opened to the public 27 years ago this week. I saw the Sunsphere then, but prefer it as it is now, partly because the elevator ride is free.
I've always thought the Sunsphere's highest and best use might have to include a bar. You want to tell the folks at home that you went up there, sure, but you want to be able to mark the occasion by doing something, having a drink inside the thing.
And for the last several months, there's been a bar on the underside of the Sphere called the Skybox, offering startling views of Fort Sanders and South Knoxville. It's allegedly Jake Butcher's old velvet-lined lair, refurbished for aesthetic purposes. Stepping out of the elevator, after the ear-popping ride, is gorgeous. It reminds me of one of those clean, dark, spaceship lounges in the latter Star Trek series, like a dashboard with the surface of a weird planet below.
The friendly bartender isn't nearly old enough to remember the World's Fair. She says customers tell her it was no big deal.
I'd heard rumors that the bar was expensive. They do have some posh drinks, like the $11 Voltini. (You'll have to try it for yourself, because I didn't. I just know there's lots of orange stuff in it.) But operator Southern Graces, the caterer which is technically in bankruptcy, recently lowered prices. PBRs are only $2. There weren't many deals like that at the Fair.
Most architects, at least those who didn't get the job, like to fuss about the Sunsphere. Good or bad, there's nothing like it this side of Kazakhstan. For years I've heard rumors about the design's origin, and, following up on a local tip, learned some details.
Bryce Thomas is an architect of 45 who lives and works in Seattle. He sounds modest and unassuming on the phone. Son of businessman/lawyer Perry Thomas, Bryce grew up near West Hills. In 1978, when he was 14, his parents took him on an "adventure" vacation trip to Seattle. He was awed, as most teenagers still are, at his first sight of the Space Needle, the theme structure for the 1962 World's Fair. "The Space Needle in Seattle is very slender, very graceful," he says. He'd heard his home town had a fair coming up, thought it needed a theme structure like the Space Needle. Talking with his parents around the dinner table, he proposed what he thought might be an appropriate design for it.
He drew a picture that impressed his father. It's labeled "Basic Sun Globe." He still has the drawing of it he made in July, 1978. The globe is made of "gold glass," mounted on top of a very tall stalk, accessible by an elevator. A note, in a child's hand, specifies, "Globe contain[s] Restaurant and Observation area. If possible use as a source of solar energy [for] operation."
His father was impressed, and mailed the diagram to the World's Fair authorities. They heard nothing for two years.
"I was shocked the day I went to get the newspaper," one Sunday in 1980, Bryce says. "On the front page there was a picture of this Sunsphere proposal."
The World's Fair had hired design firm Community Tectonics in 1979, several months after receiving the boy's drawings, and they're credited with the Sunsphere's design.
In June, 1980, Bryce received a letter from George Siler, the fair's executive vice president, who did acknowledge the kid's plan. "As you can imagine, we receive lots of suggestions from people about the Fair," Siler wrote. "Many of them are impractical or not in keeping with our objectives. Yours was a notable exception. In fact, you submitted one of the best ideas we have received. Your Sun Globe is innovative, well conceived and very much in accordance with what we think our World's Fair ought to contain.
"As you know, one of the best architectural firms in East Tennessee has independently developed a multimillion dollar elevated restaurant along the lines of your concept. You obviously are a very talented person, and I hope you will pursue and develop your interests."
The teenager got to meet with the architects. "It was a closed-door meeting, and they didn't acknowledge anything that I had done," Bryce says, but adds it was a friendly conversation. He says he took their advice and attended the University of Cincinnati's architecture school.
He didn't raise a stink. "I'm a pretty non-confrontational guy," he says. "At the time, I was younger and probably more cocky," he says. "I thought, if I could do it then, I could do it again.
"I don't know if that's so brilliant that somebody couldn't think of it independently," he says, admitting that evoking the sun in a theme structure for an energy exposition might have been an obvious idea. His plan is different in a few regards: the Sun Globe has diamond-shaped gold window panes; the Sunsphere's are square. Bryce proposed a rotating donut-shaped elevator that rose up and down the shaft; the Sunsphere's is a conventional elevator. His was several stories taller.
The World's Fair opened the month he graduated from Bearden High.
After his degree at Cincinnati, Thomas worked with post-post-modernist Frank Gehry, who in the late '80s was probably not yet the most famous architect in the world; the Knoxvillian got a credit on one of Gehry's famous structures, the Fish Dance restaurant in Kobe, Japan.
He went back to Seattle, the city that had awed him as a teenager. Today he works on mostly modest residential and commercial projects there. He comes home to visit for a few days every summer, and always find himself driving by the Sunsphere. "Quite frankly, I've always been disappointed in the Sunsphere," he says. "It's not tall enough," he says, "and it's built like the Space Needle in Gatlinburg, like an Erector Set."
Still, it's a fine place to enjoy a cold drink. The best view of the Sunsphere may be the one from inside this bar, after a beer or two.