A Walk in the World's Fair Park

A partially successful attempt to remember a world's fair

One sunny day last week, I walked the circumference of the old place, trying to picture things.

I was there nearly every day of the 1982 World's Fair. I lived a block and a half away from the western gate, and I worked there, mostly in crowd control. Assignments to monitor unruly lines put me in nearly every corner of that oblong ravine that tried hard to be, for exactly six months, the most exciting place in the world.

I worked in the daytime until I was all brown, except for my brown hair, which bleached nearly white. Then I browsed the fair at night, marveling at the bright, noisy weirdness of it all. I bar-hopped from the Aussies' Down Under Pub to the Budweiser Beer Garden to the always-boisterous Strohaus, where happy Midwesterners danced to polka music. Sometimes I'd climb up to the Flamingo Lounge, wondering about the elegant people who hung out up there, and whether they were nearly as elegant when there wasn't a world's fair going on.

Today it's sunny and hot. Chubby kids, monitored by chubbier adults, cavort in the fountains that weren't there in 1982. At what's now called the Festival Lawn, a team of brisk young men prepare for a complicated-looking athletic event. A hippie couple ambles up from the South Lawn toward Fort Sanders. Sitting on sunny concrete near the Waters of the World, a shopkeeper reads a paperback novel. Barely visible through convention-center glass, a figure of indiscernible age or gender sits and surveys the scene.

In the Tennessee Amphitheater, a chorus works on a bit from Les Miserables. They're not quite there yet.

Except for that amphitheater and the Sunsphere, World's Fair Park retains few traces of the actual fair. Almost everything's been redesigned, rebuilt. The big pool's shape is different, and trails off into a faux creek to the south. The Court of Flags is different; it looks better now. Nearby is the quiet veterans' memorial, where mobs of hungry and exhausted tourists once swarmed.

The historic buildings all have different purposes now. The L&N's busier now than it has been since the fair: crowded restaurants then, it's now an unusual high school. The Candy Factory, which held galleries and cafes then, is now mostly residential. Someone sits on a lofty porch, reading.

Planted on the site of the Japan Pavilion is the Knoxville Museum of Art. Japan's chief draw was a robot who was a pretty fair modernist painter.

The Rachmaninoff statue wasn't yet conceived by its Russian sculptor, but there was an Alexander Calder mobile sculpture near that site.

The South Lawn's getting a mechanical watering today, but back then it was the flat, dry, concrete site of the Saudi Arabian pavilion. The Arabians were in the hottest, most desert-like part of the fair. On a scorching summer day, the concrete shimmered in the heat.

The boardwalk-style beer garden, a unique outdoor venue for years after the fair, is, alas, now a private parking lot.

Rare remnants of the fair aren't aging well. One obscure walkway across Second Creek at the Foundry is badly decayed, and scary to cross. Even stuff built after the fair looks old. Fort Kid is slowly coming apart, now closed for safety reasons. It's about where the Hungarian Pavilion was. Memories of the bright, sunlit Hungarian Pavilion, with its giant rotating Rubik's Cube, seem fresher than those, a dozen years newer, of my son and daughter being playground age, and racing around Fort Kid. Memory plays tricks.

And some memories puzzle. I remember the Philippines Pavilion, and that it had a charming outdoor cafe that came down toward the natural creek, where some existing ruins of a stone foundation gave it an exotic atmosphere. Back then, I hoped a permanent Knoxville restaurant would be inspired to take its place, using the same vantage. It's nothing but surface parking now, and the cafe is hard to picture. Elevations have changed.

***

The fair was much bigger than the modern-day park. Toward the river, it's hard to find a place for the biggest Ferris wheel in the world. Maybe it was about where the University Tennessee's new John Tickle Engineering Building is under construction.

The pedestrian tunnel under Neyland Drive to the river, where the TVA pavilion was, is still used daily. I'm pretty sure some of the peeling waterfront railings down there are World's Fair vintage.

That area south of Cumberland isn't considered part of World's Fair Park today, but it featured some of the fair's largest and most popular pavilions: Australia, Egypt, Peru, and especially China. They were the largest international pavilions, and the ones allowed to stray farthest from the technical energy theme. A stocky huckster on a fire escape outside the Peruvian exhibit exhorted the waiting thousands: "Welcome to 2,000 years of hees-story! We have Gold! We have a Mummy!" (He pronounced it "Mooommie," always with an exclamation point.) Next-door neighbor Egypt, a little more decorous, quietly offered lots of mysterious busted statues from the era of Ramses and Hatshepsut.

Today, it's all as quiet as Shelley's Ozymandias. The blue metal buildings have been gone for 29 years.

China was a mysterious dark emporium of calligraphers, cooks, miniature painters, jade carvers, all livelier than the glowering terra-cotta warriors from the tomb of an ancient emperor. Just the line to get in, often hours long, was legendary.

The fact that mainland China was participating in a world's fair for the first time since 1904 was the fair's biggest draw and historic distinction. Now all that area, extensively relandscaped, is taken up by UT parking lots and the Second Creek and Volunteer Landing Greenways. The precise locations of the big pavilions are a matter for conjecture. I spent long hours monitoring China's line, walking back and forth from the entrance to the end, sometimes a quarter-mile away, but I can just guess.

Is this even the same place? That's a matter for philosophers.


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