The 1982 World’s Fair was 40 years ago, but it still has an impact on the culture of the Scruffy City.
Here are a few things that only exist and are still going strong because of Knoxville’s 1982 World’s Fair.
Petro’s Chili & Chips
The “Petroleum Belly” was among many innovations, inventions and marvels that debuted during the World’s Fair. Named in honor of the fair’s energy theme, the concoction featured corn chips topped with chili, cheese, tomatoes, onions and sour cream. It came in premium, super premium and unleaded varieties.
The snack was an instant hit and became better known as the “Petro.” The first permanent Petro’s Chili & Chips opened in 1985 in West Town Mall and the chain’s headquarters remain in Knoxville. The fast-food chain now has locations in three states, including one on Market Square.
The downtown landscape
It might be hard to envision downtown without World’s Fair Park. Before 11 million people from around the world came to town, the area needed an uplift.
The site chosen for the fair was next to an abandoned railroad yard. It was 70 acres of neglected land previously known as “Scuffletown,” the home of dilapidated houses that were mostly torn down by 1972.
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Organizers hoped redeveloping the area would revitalize downtown and have a positive economic and commercial impact by attracting shops, restaurants, offices and hotels. The efforts transformed the landscape to what we know today.
World’s Fair Park is now a go-to destination for concerts and events like Dogwood Arts Festival.
“Scruffy City” pride
Many did not view Knoxville did as viable choice when organizers began campaigning for the city to host a World’s Fair in the late ’70s. A Wall Street Journal writer even referred to Knoxville as a “scruffy little city” in a 1980 report about the city’s fair ambitions.
To tout what they considered a successful fair (the event made $57, according to World’s Fair Park history), officials created commemorative buttons that read “The Scruffy Little City Did It.”
Some Knoxvillians have embraced the “Scruffy City” moniker with pride since. The nickname has been adopted by countless businesses and even a podcast.
The Tennessee Amphitheater
The Tennessee Amphitheater was specifically built for the famous musicians and other performers during the fair. Its unique design was one of German designer Horst Berger’s early creations.
He became known for his use of tensile fabric—the canopies hovering over the amphitheater—and went on to design buildings throughout the world with a similar aesthetic, including the SeaWorld Pavilion in San Diego, Wimbledon Tennis Arena in London, and the Denver International Airport.
Though the structure was condemned for demolition in 2002, renovations began in 2005. It reopened in 2007 and continues to be a space for performances and events.
Giant Rubik’s Cube
Inside the Knoxville Convention Center sits what is believed to be the world’s largest Rubik’s Cube. The 10-foot motorized sculpture was a gift from the Hungarian government to be displayed at the entrance of Hungary’s pavilion during the fair. It was meant to honor Ernő Rubik, the Hungarian architect who invented the puzzle game in 1974.
Though the motor is not in use, you can visit the giant cube at the convention center.
Seattle has the Space Needle. Paris has the Eiffel Tower. And Knoxville has the Sunsphere.
Designed by Hubert Bebb of Knoxville-based architectural firm Community Tectonics, the Sunsphere symbolizes Earth’s sun and served as the centerpiece of the energy-themed fair.
It stands at 266 feet with five levels of window panels that create its spherical shape.
You can take in the downtown cityscape, the Tennessee River, and the Great Smoky Mountains from its 360-degree observation deck. In the past, it has featured lounges and a restaurant.
The Sunsphere and Tennessee Amphitheater are the only two structures specifically built for the World’s Fair still standing.