The European Union crisis can seem far away, but the whole thing has one remote connection to Knoxville.
The EU’s predecessor was the European Community, and 34 years ago this summer, their representatives were in an aluminum building over near 11th Street. They were trying to explain their unusual organization to Americans at the 1982 World’s Fair. Their pavilion was in the international row at the northwestern part of the grounds, presented as if they were a nation, themselves. It was about where Fort Kid’s parking lot is today.
This was the first time the European Community had ever mounted a whole pavilion at a World’s Fair. The idea had been stirring for 25 years, the subject of trade treaties. But the EC had no common currency, and a large part of it was still theoretical.
Every morning that summer, when crowd control reported for work, we got our assignments. Getting the European pavilions was like getting the day off. It was in the shade, the lines never got out of control, and there were Belgian waffles handy. These were the nations who signed up early for the fair, without having to be cajoled. They accepted the fair’s energy theme to the letter. They brought modern, well-designed, clearly worded educational exhibits with good ideas about conserving energy and finding new sources for it. Unlike the later signees, who’d bargained their way into making exceptions, the Europeans didn’t have painting robots or dancing girls or mummies or ancient stone warriors or a bar with great big cans of beer. The European pavilions were aimed at literate, earnest, sober adults. They respected the energy theme and the intelligence of attendees. Hence there were never problems at the European lines. There usually weren’t lines at all.
France was there, and Britain, and Italy, and West Germany. Each was identified with the puzzling-to-Americans label “EC.” Then there was a pavilion just for the EC, to explain it.
In the summer of ’82, thousands of Americans had never heard of the European Community. The EC’s first-ever pavilion at a World’s Fair was a sort of public engagement party.
It had a colorful exterior, a bright mosaic that suggested pixilated flames. A sculpture on the same motif stood outside the pavilion.
Within was an exhibit about a giant solar plant in Italy, and another about Britain’s Joint European Torus, a major effort to develop practical nuclear fusion. Then just in the planning stages, JET exists today in Oxfordshire, an ongoing experiment of great interest in nuclear physics.
All of those nations had their own pavilions in the same neighborhood, and many tourists found the EC pavilion confusing. They’d walk out and see the Great Britain pavilion, and say, “Wait—didn’t we just see the British exhibit?”
To most, maybe, the separate British exhibit was of greater interest. At some point they added a video loop of the royal wedding, which took place three years earlier, on a small TV screen. Tourists crowded around to watch it again. On June 21 the British pavilion closed early. Princess Diana had given birth to a boy, to be named William. The news was reason enough to close up early and get a pint. Some tourists were disappointed. It was about the only time at the usually serene European row that the crowds almost got ugly.
A British fellow explained the EC to me. We want Europe to be sort of like the United States, he said, sharing resources across borders. That was useful. I had to explain the concept to several perplexed Americans that summer.
The Walnut Building, which has been our home for a year and a half, has a distinction you might notice even before you open the door.
It’s a stainless-steel box that says AMTEL, in that arrogantly plain corporate font that used to look bold and modern. Now intercoms are quaint. A landline-style phone with a metal keypad, it looks something like an old pay phone.
It’s more surprising to see the names on the directory. One is the architectural firm of McCarty Holsaple McCarty. Bruce McCarty’s firm introduced large-scale modernism to Knoxville, and probably had a bigger influence on the face of the city over the last 60 years than any other entity. Still thriving, they’ve had their own sort of postmodern building over on Main Street for a couple of decades. Until I noticed their name on the intercom, I didn’t know they were ever located in the Walnut Building. MHM gave it a major facelift then, with much larger windows, effectively modernizing a modernist building.
Also on the list are some names of well-known lawyers: Timothy Priest, John K. Harber, Charles W. Swanson. In recent years, Swanson has been the city’s law director.
And look. There, in this building, is 13-30 Corporation, its “Management Information Systems” office and “Field Operations” office. You may recall that 13-30 changed its name to Whittle Communications, then added more magazines and a television studio and even a revolutionary new tech-based educational system, as it built a grand Georgian headquarters between Main and Cumberland—all as it blew up like a Supernova. Whittle vanished in 1994.
But you can still try to call up its predecessor, 13-30, right here. It gives you the number.
The intercom looks as if it should still work. The handset is intact, the cord is in good shape, the tiny red light glows brightly when you pick it up, and there’s a little crackle in the earpiece. Ghosts are trying to talk.
Curious, I looked it up in the old city directories at the library. The one year all the names on the intercom were listed with offices here was 1986.
Ronald Reagan was president, Lamar Alexander was governor, Kyle Testerman was mayor, and the U.S. government was trying to help poor Saddam Hussein in his war with the mean Iranians. I was a kid with a full head of hair wondering if it was possible to make a living in print journalism.
And none of us, Ronald, Lamar, Kyle, Saddam or me, had cell phones.
In 1986, McCarty Holsaple McCarty was finishing up the design of the still-arresting ziggurat-style redo of Hodges Library; 13-30 was splitting up and contemplating selling its most famous property, Esquire Magazine. I don’t know what all those lawyers were up to.