citybeat (2007-03)

A familiar figure from the World’s Fair is oddly placed under an interstate overpass

Wednesday, Jan. 11

Rubik’s Waste

When Erno Rubik came to town in ’82, he knew he was going to blow minds. Just two years earlier, the Hungarian-born inventor/sculptor who had a certain flair for brainsick mathematical puzzles, unveiled the Rubik’s Cube, and it became an international phenomenon. Its packaging proudly boasted that there were billions of possible complications, which is a horrid understatement.

There are, in actuality, more than 43 quintillion (or, if you will, 4.3252 × 1019) possible configurations, enough logical twists and turns to keep every geek, nerd and dweeb dumbfounded and frustrated. Nevertheless, we loved it.

At the fair, Rubik oversaw the cube-off competition, held at the amphitheater. But what most fairgoers remember, as if tattooed on their brains, was the giant, 216-cubic-foot Rubik’s Cube, which was hailed as the world’s largest and was on display in the Hungarian Pavilion.

“It’s an East Tennessee icon, and it has a lot of real meaning to people around here,” says Michael Toomey, staff historian at the East Tennessee Historical Society (ETHS).

“It was gifted to us by the city of Knoxville,” adds Michelle McDonald, curator of collections at ETHS. The museum acquired it when the Public Building Authority removed the cube from the fair site. Unfortunately, vandals had already made off with most of its multi-colored panels.

The cube’s motor no longer functions, and it has sat idle for years.

“We’re not particularly interested in selling it,” Toomey continues. “We’ve talked with a lot of people, and entertained a lot of ideas. First and foremost, we want to keep it as close to the World’s Fair site as possible, keep it part of the East Tennessee landscape.”

Just a few years ago, the giant cube could be seen on display outside the history center, where it was exposed to the elements and, of course, the curiosity of passersby.

“It was never designed to be outdoors for an extended period of time,” Toomey says, “and leaving it out there indefinitely was really not an option.”

Today, below the web of interstate overpasses that funnel traffic in and out of downtown, the cube sits on a storage lot, surrounded by sundry bric-a-brac and other unsightly clutter. Recently, the tarp protecting the cube blew off, causing many passing motorists to do a double take. There it was, a World’s Fair icon, resting rather unceremoniously with several of its panels busted out. Yet it still captures the imagination of those who saw it in its prime.

“I was 10 during the fair, and I had season passes,” says Chris King of World’s Fair LLC, who now owns the rights to the fair’s logo (his t-shirts can be purchased from a kiosk in West Town Mall). “For a 10-year-old to go to the fair four nights a week,” he adds, “it was an amazing thing…. I tried to purchase [the giant Rubik’s Cube], acquire it, use it. Basically, just find a home for it. It belongs to us. It was given to the people of Knoxville. I don’t care who gets it, just get it out from under the interstate.

“It’s ridiculous. It’s infuriating.”

King says that it will take approximately $5,000 to completely refurbish the cube. He and his business partners had hoped to acquire the cube and place it on the site of a new business park development near Weisgarber and Papermill Road, complete with a plaque that would read, A Gift to the People of Knoxville from Hungary .

But it won’t be gracing any office park anytime soon. ETHS has had talks with the Knoxville Museum of Art, among others, hoping to work out a permanent place to house Rubik’s largest cube.

“We’re making plans to get it out of there,” Toomey says. “We are optimistic that we are going to make it happen.”

World’s Fair memorabilia and infrastructure tend to end up in the strangest places. King remembers when his father helped gut the Australian Pavilion, and people were apt to bring pieces of the carpeting back to their houses. The “A” on the marquee for Eddie’s A uto Parts once belonged to the sign hanging above the Italian Pavilion. A windmill from an exposé on clean energy was donated to the University of Tennessee and could be seen off of Alcoa Highway for many years, where it provided the electricity for a house as part of Knoxville’s Experiment Station project. And, at the Electric Ballroom, the urinals are rumored to be World’s Fair originals.

SEVEN DAYS

Wednesday, Jan. 11

Thursday, Jan. 12

Friday, Jan. 13

Saturday, Jan. 14

Sunday, Jan. 15

Monday, Jan. 16

Tuesday, Jan. 17