Dean of domes: Monolithic owner put Italy on map
Motorists driving along Interstate 35E have long marveled at the series of roadside monolithic domes arranged in the shape of a caterpillar in the town of Italy. This curiosity, named “Bruco,” is as much a landmark on the way to Waco or Austin as West’s kolache shops, Buc-ee’s and Carl’s Corner are.
The iconic caterpillar is there thanks to the founder of Italy’s monolithic dome industry, David B. South, who recently passed away at the age of 81.
South, who grew up in Idaho helping to run his family's sawmill, started a business with two of his brothers in 1970 applying polyurethane foam insulation. South was always fascinated with domes but soon learned that building them was a time-consuming, expensive and arduous process.
One day, the idea of a “balloon” suddenly occurred to him as a very quick and inexpensive way to inflate and shape a building. South’s “balloon” was a very tough reinforced vinyl airform that could be inflated in minutes.
South’s breakthrough in the construction of inexpensive dome structures caught the attention of numerous architects and engineers, including Thomas Kincaid, a 90-year-old retired architect.
“My first degree was in Industrial Design from the University of Iowa, designing furniture, cars, etc.,” Kincaid told the Daily Light in a tribute letter to South. “This was followed by a degree in architecture from the University of Florida. I kept wondering why buildings could not be constructed like chairs ... quickly with few parts, stronger and more economical.
“David’s first dome technology was the answer! It satisfied all of the above requirements as well as being conscious of the environment.”
South’s first monolithic dome was a potato storage facility in Shelley, Idaho in 1976. The dome was a success, and South and his brothers Barry and Randy in 1980 founded Monolithic Constructors, Inc. and began building domes all across the U.S. and around the world. The brothers split their company in 1988, and David South moved Monolithic’s operations to Italy, Texas in 1990.
Monolithic domes are used to build homes, schools, houses of worship, governmental buildings and many other uses. Their resistance to tornadoes and hurricanes makes them valuable as community shelters. To date, the company has built thousands of domes and has passed the technology on to hundreds of builders.
Two of the company’s domes are in use today in Ellis County — the Gladiator Coliseum in Italy, which includes a gymnasium with seating for 1,500 as well as an auditorium and classrooms; and the Multipurpose Center in Avalon, which includes a gym with seating for 720 and four dressing rooms.
The company’s 240-foot-long landmark caterpillar, “Bruco,” houses the company’s manufacturing of the airforms used in construction of domes.
“It is truly amazing that a person from such a small town of Italy, Texas, population 1937, has provided such a momentous affect on architecture throughout the world!” Kinkaid told the Daily Light.
In 1996, the Monolithic Dome Institute was founded in Italy. The institute was intended to raise awareness of monolithic domes and teach and train people about their benefits and construction. The institute offers one-week courses for architects, engineers and builders to learn the elements of high strength concrete and actually build a small dome.
At the beginning of 2020, the institute became a separate company from Monolithic Constructors.
South died Nov. 3 because of complications from Alzheimer’s. Because of COVID-19, no viewing or public funeral was held. The family held a private ceremony under the direction of Wayne Boze Funeral Home.
In 2014, South was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and decided it was time to move away from the day-to-day operations of Monolithic. In February 2015, he transferred ownership to Mike South, Gary Clark, and Dave South. He stayed on as chairman to continue pursuing some personal projects and later became chairman emeritus. His wife, family, and employees supported him during the past six years as the illness took its toll.
South married his high school sweetheart, Judy Lynne Bates, on his 20th birthday in 1959. The couple raised ten children together. Judy preceded him in death in February 2019 after 60 years of marriage.