If the phase “the good old days” is ever appropriate, it would seem that the time preceding and during the 1982 World’s Fair would certainly apply for a young architect in Knoxville, Tennessee. There was an energy in the air that supported the “energy turns the world” theme the Fair had chosen. Everyone was busy, or so it seemed, and deadlines were pressing from all sides – the things dreams are made of for architects and their firms.
The Fair was a wonderful time for my young family and me. My firm, of which I had just become a minority partner, was heavily vested in the outcome of the event. We had pledged a large sum of money to “cover the note” in the eventuality that the whole affair would be a bust. But failure was not even considered a possibility for the visionaries that dreamed of bringing the venue to Knoxville. We were united as a whole to prove “the scruffy little city on the banks of the Tennessee river” was more than the Wall Street Journal or other outsiders could envision.
Red Chair was not only the designers of the theme structure – the Sunsphere – but also a part of the development team that owned and operated that asset. We created a Sunsphere book, bottles and other memorabilia. We were also fortunate enough to be the designers of a number of the international pavilions on the grounds. It was a delightful time of dreaming, planning and producing.
Since the firm was a financial supporter of the fair, all the partners received “Gold Passports” as well as a number of commemorative “gifts” representing the fair, such as a blue blazer with the Fair’s logo, a tie with the same logo, and a number of other niceties that have long since disappeared over the years. As a Gold Passport holder, I could enter the Fair unlimited times and could bring two guests each time I came for “free.” My pass was well worn by closing day and I seemed to have a lot of new best friends during that period as well.
Our architectural offices were on the 21st floor of “Jake’s Bank” and we would regularly close down the fair at the end of the evening by viewing the fireworks from our office windows. We all wished it would never end.
But it did, as did the Butcher banking empire about a year later. The years that followed those events would transition us from “it was the best of times” into “it was the worst of times” as abruptly as Dickens did in A Tale of Two Cities. The energy and optimism of the community seemed to leave town as quickly as did the eleven million visitors that had loved Knoxville so much. We had a void of leadership for a number of years to follow. While, at the time, almost any redevelopment of the fair site could have been successful, it sat dormant for decades as a memento of not only what was, but of what could have been.
In the current economy of the past few years I see similarities in those times and our times. Hopefully we have learned from our past and avoid the extremes we saw three decades ago as we stuck our heads in the sand and waited as progress moved on to other places. I think Knoxville’s future, despite some economic indicators in the past couple of years, has a bright future. I believe the same energy and vision that transformed that scruffy little city is still alive and well. And if we can avoid ignoring the future while dwelling on the recent past, perhaps the good old days will become the ones in which we are living.
President, Red Chair Architects