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World's Fair Park: Reinventing a Knoxville Landmark

By Michael F. Fowler, ASLA, and Erik Skindrud, regional editor

Photos by Peter Montanti, Mountain Photographics

The fountain at the lake's center is more than an aesthetic feature--it aerates the lake to keep it clean. The sunsphere at left is the theme building created for the 1982 Knoxville Worlds' Fair.

Instead of opening the core of the 1982 World's Fair site to development, the City of Knoxville decided to keep it as a park. The Knoxville landscape architecture and planning firm Ross/Fowler completed the job with a number of special references to Tennessee's history and geographic setting.

Knoxville locals remember the early 1980s, when the World's Fair transformed a large part of the city's railroad yard and warehouse district.

Now, after a 20-year hiatus, the process is continuing as about a third of the original World's Fair site gets a $14 million upgrade.

The project's master plan was created by Ross/Fowler, the Knoxville-based firm that also completed the architectural and the landscape architectural design.

Looking from south to north, this view includes: A) Court of flags. B) The festival lawn, C) The Clinch Avenue viaduct D) The man made lake created for the 1982 Worlds' Fair.

Called World's Fair Park, the zone occupies close to 20 acres north and south of the 1982 event's "Sunsphere." Looking like a giant gold golf ball atop an elongated tee, the Sunsphere served the same function as the Eiffel Tower during the International Exhibition at Paris in 1889. (And like the Eiffel Tower, the Sunsphere was retained after the exhibition to become an iconic part of the city's skyline.)

World's Fair Park's features include a large parking area to the north connected to the park by a tree-lined walkway. Heading south, the path passes the historic L & N Railroad Station and another pathway to Knoxville's historic district called the Old City Connection. Visitors pass through a courtyard and fountain on their way to the park's Festival Lawn. South of this point is the core of the World's Fair area, where the refurbished lake is a central feature.

The Sunsphere overlooks the lake at this point across from the white-tented amphitheater. Continuing south, the Lower Second Creek Valley is proposed to be a naturally-landscaped area that provides a green connection between the park and Knoxville's waterfront.

The Knoxville Setting

Knoxville is located on the banks of the Tennessee River between the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cumberland range.

A natural crossroads, the city sits close to the borders of Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina. In the 1860s the railroad emerged as a mode of trade and transport, and rail yards and warehouses sprang up along the town's Second Creek, within sight of its junction with the river.

The design team gave the new pedestrian bridge at the south end of the lake a design modeled on Tennessee's many TVA dams. The water appears to flow under the bridge, but in fact recirculates and is contained in this section of the park's aquascape.

The former industrial zone was transformed for the 1982 event, which was held on the 70-acre site between downtown and the University of Tennessee. The lower Second Creek valley site had been occupied by the Historic L & N Train Station. The World's Fair, which attracted more than 11 million visitors over six months, provided the opportunity to redevelop the site into the fair venue for the pavilions of 22 participating countries and associated pedestrian spaces.

By the time the fair was over in October of 1982, Knoxville residents had come to appreciate the fair site as a civic open space. However the close of the fair brought the removal of the majority of exhibition structures and a period of slow decline of the site. After several redevelopment attempts, the former U.S. Pavilion was removed and the city focused on the remaining structures--Tennessee Amphitheater, the Sunsphere, and the exhibition center--together with the site as downtown's largest park and open space. During this period the site was used for a variety of events and festivals although the quality of the infrastructure continued to decline from a lack of public investment.

In 1997, Knoxville leaders began to consider the former 1982 World's Fair site for a new convention center to be designed by architects Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback and McCarty Holsaple McCarty. The planning and landscape architecture firm of Ross/Fowler was given the task of developing a master plan for revitalizing the site into the World's Fair Park. The master plan process began with consultations with the client and a series of listening sessions that involved the various public and private stakeholders. A program for the park grew from this process which was based upon improving linkage and access to the site--both pedestrian and vehicular. The goal was to create a multipurpose outdoor festival venue providing for outdoor concerts, honoring the history of the site for the 1982 World's Fair and creating an attractive setting for the new convention center.

As its name implies, the U.S. flag and a total of 21 international flags surround the Court of Flags fountain. Each flag represents a country that took part in the 1982 World's Fair.


The World's Fair Park consists of three major areas: the Festival Lawn, the Lake Area and the Performance Lawn. In the redesign, these areas are connected to each other and the surrounding urban area with an increased number and improved pedestrian linkages, bridges, elevators, and stairs. In addition to pedestrian linkages, vehicular connections are a part of the park. A new section of World's Fair Park Drive links Eleventh Street and Clinch Avenue providing direct vehicular access to existing parking resources north of the park. This route also provides good vehicular access into the park from Interstate 40.

The new features continue the traditions of use that have been established for park spaces while improving quality and functionality. In addition to facilities, the park contains features that are characteristic of the region. Water in its many forms is a major feature of the park. In addition to water, the landscape at World's Fair Park underscores Knoxville's regional position near the mountains (a point emphasized with native and adaptive plantings). Plants emblematic of Knoxville, such as dogwood, as well as displays of seasonal color at high impact locations were used. Plantings were also used as buffers to screen service areas and the railroad along the park's western edge. Lawns were considered important to provide the open green multipurpose areas of the park.

Surrounding the landscape are appropriate areas of pavement and other hardscapes in the form of walkways, plazas and gathering/arrival areas. In addition to paving, landscape, and water; park features such as signage, sculpture and lighting contribute a strong sense of place.

The Court of Flags fountain includes multiple geysers, like these three grouped in the center, here erupting to their full height of about 30 feet. The fountain is built near the site of the Court of Flags, where the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1982 World's Fair were held.

Good First Impressions

World's Fair Park improvements make the park more accessible from Downtown, the Knoxville Convention Center, and the university district. Improved stairways and elevators at the Sunsphere theme structure make this a clear and intuitive entryway into the Park. A new elevator and stair element from the viaduct approach is located just east of the railroad and provides enhanced access to the festival lawn area from adjacent residential and commercial areas west of the park.

The Clinch Avenue viaduct that bisects the park at an upper level has been reopened to through traffic that offers views from the viaduct to the festival lawn to the north and the lake area to the south. Vehicular drop-off areas along Clinch at the north end of the Knoxville Convention Center and on the park floor just north of the Sunsphere will provide additional opportunities to enter the park. Service vehicles access the park from the north along a new service drive for the Museum of Art and the security office and restroom building east of the railroad.

Service from Park Drive to the Holiday Inn and UT Conference Center is maintained. These service drives have been appropriately screened to set them off from adjacent views.

Children--and other visitors--are encouraged to get up close to the interactive Court of Flags fountain. A waterproof speaker system located nearby plays kid-friendly tunes.

The large open area called Festival Lawn is larger than a football field and suitable for music, picnics and other events. This lawn is bordered on the north by a large interactive fountain and the Court of Flags plaza featuring the banners from the 22 nations that participated in the 1982 event. On the west the area is bordered by native plantings that screen the big lawn from the service drive and railroad. Just north of the Clinch Avenue Viaduct and east of the railroad a public services building with restrooms and security facilities is in a central location for all park users. Visitors can obtain information about park activities from park staff that operate out of the building.

Water is a major element in the Festival Lawn area. The Court of Flags fountain at the north end of the lawn is a major interactive water feature that is enhanced with fog effects, lighting and performance programs synchronized with various musical selections. The area attracts children and adults to play in the dancing waters.

North of the Court of Flags Fountain is the HGTV Walk which serves as the park's north entry. The area is a stroll garden with a large parterre of trees and flowers with places to sit and enjoy the park and open space.

The light fixtures at center were custom-designed by the Ross Fowler design firm around Poulsen lights. The metal-halide lights were chosen for their festive sparkle effect.

More Water Features

Pedestrians access the lake area across the railroad from the west, over the refurbished Cumberland Avenue pedestrian bridges from the south, from the Convention Center turnaround and terrace on the east and from the elevators and stairs at the landmark Sunsphere. A new pedestrian bridge spans the south end of the lake. Holiday Inn and University of Tennessee Conference Center service access is maintained beneath the Clinch Avenue Viaduct. From the south, service vehicles heading for the Convention Center enter a service tunnel to an underground service area.

The lake is the dominant feature in this area. From the Lake Cascade the lake stretches south adjacent to the Sunsphere and new Convention Center. The Geyser Fountain is located near the south end of the lake and is positioned to be viewed from the west terrace of the Convention Center and from the lake shore as well as Cumberland Avenue and Clinch Avenue. The lake is retained by a dam feature that also functions as a pedestrian bridge. The dam contains spillways that flow into the Stream Cascade below the dam. This latter park feature is a reference to the many Tennessee Valley Authority dams along the nearby Tennessee River.

World's Fair Park looking north from the Clinch Avenue Viaduct. In the foreground is the Lake Cascade fountain, with the Festival Lawn beyond. The Court of Flags can be seen in the background.

Performance Lawn

Pedestrian access to the World's Fair Park from the University of Tennessee is through the entry at Eleventh and Cumberland and along the Rachmaninoff Walk. The Sergei Rachmaninoff Statue here commemorates the composer and pianist's last public performance, in 1943, at the nearby University of Tennessee campus. The pedestrian way crosses the railroad to connect to the Convention Center via the pedestrian bridge. Screen planting buffers separate the pedestrian from the performance area backstage service court. Service vehicles enter the Performance Area from Eleventh Street. The Performance Lawn is the setting for outdoor concerts for 6,000 or more listeners and participants.

Roadway, signage and restroom improvements are placed at the north end of the Performance Lawn area. World's Fair Park Drive connects across the railroad tracks to Clinch Avenue. Signage at Clinch Avenue forms a portal entry to the new Convention Center and World's Fair Park as well as the adjacent historic Fort Sanders neighborhood.

The semicircular structures of concrete and local marble lining the lakefront are small retaining walls that double as benches for visitors. The bollards here are path lights manufactured by Kim Lighting, Inc.

Final Plans

Most of the project construction was complete by the end of 2003, but a number of unplaced pieces of the puzzle remain. The Lower Second Creek Valley landscaping is yet to be complete. That phase will require the removal of several leftover railroad trestles and parking lots.

Also this winter, the city council was still making final decisions on repairs to the Tennessee Amphitheater at the park's center. Several other gaps remained to be filled along either side of the festival lawn, with developers Dewhirst Properties, Segundo Properties and Terminus Real Estate among the competitors for the privilege. A final decision was expected by March.

Also by March, the fate of the landmark Sunsphere should be resolved. As late as this year, the structure was used by as few as three public employees who worked on the top floor. The other seven floors were unoccupied, including space that once held a 120-seat observation deck and a 376-seat revolving restaurant.

One new plan has a newspaper moving into part of the Sunsphere with other areas reopening to the public, possibly as soon as this fall.

A local group raised funds for the casting of this sculpture depicting Russian composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. He gave the last performance of his career at the nearby University of Tennessee campus on February 15, 1943.

The Rebuilding Team


City of Knoxville, Public Building Authority

Architect/ Landscape Architect Ross/Fowler Consultants
Barge Waggoner
Sumner and Cannon, civil
Vreeland Engineers, electrical
I.C. Thomasson, mechanical
Carpenter Wright Engineers, structural
M.V. Cummings Engineers, fountains
Design Clark, environmental graphics

Valley Crest
Walter Rice Construction
Southern Constructors

(Site lighting)
(Site furniture)
Columbia Cascade

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February 26, 2020, 7:47 am PDT

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