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John Henry Shaw was killed at age 52 by shards of timber following a blast of dynamite in 1912. Laura Stagg had outlived two of her three children when, at 83, she died in her Seattle home in 1910. Nellie Parmenter burned to death at 31 after a cookstove set her dress alight in 1890.

The stories are as varied as the condition of the tombstones marking about half of the nearly 200 graves at Saar Pioneer Cemetery.

For these three, and 86 others, no tombstones mark their final resting place, and even the exact location of their graves is unknown. Historical documents show these people were buried at Saar, and ground-penetrating radar has shown a comparable number of “rectangular anomalies” on site. But who is buried where remains a mystery.

Each unmarked grave is commemorated by a doorway, and the doorways form Frances Nelson and Bradly Gunn’s large, walk-through “Thresholds” installation, on display at the cemetery until Sept. 29. A reception will be held from noon-3 p.m. on Sunday.

The doorways, each made of panels of white plywood cutouts and frames, connect to form a three-cornered gradual zigzag structure. The path through the installation begins at the headstone of Margaret Saar, the cemetery’s first resident, and ends in open graveyard.

The artists initially struggled with the heaviness of their subject.

“It is amazing to realize you could walk around the site not knowing if there is a body underneath you,” Nelson said. “How do you commemorate that?”

As Nelson tells it, their plans for “Thresholds” started with a kernel of an idea: how to mark the unmarked. The idea of a frame over each unmarked grave seemed too obvious, but the concept of doorways stuck.

To Gunn, a threshold signifies a marking, a delineation. It implies a divisive line from A to B, in which the threshold is the point of crossing over to contemplative space. During the transition from A to B, there is also a “nonspace” — a journey. By being aware of the transition, people can walk through “Thresholds” and experience this state of transformation. Each doorway is, in this sense, a threshold, carrying visitors through nonspace to the other side, Gunn explains.

Nelson and Gunn previously worked together at an architecture firm in Seattle, where Gunn still works on an on-call basis. The pair’s search for a project stemmed from Nelson looking for a way to exercise her creative design skills. And Nelson wanted to keep working with Gunn. (Nelson currently works at Sundberg Kennedy Ly-Au Young Architects in Seattle, and Gunn has started an interdisciplinary studio with another friend called Trampush and Gunn.)

The duo proposed three projects for Site Specific, a spinoff of 4Culture, King County’s cultural-services agency, that focuses on installations, performances and events at historic sites in King County.

Nelson and Gunn submitted proposals to Site Specific for projects at MOHAI, the Virginia V Steamship Site and Saar. Saar was the project they felt the least confident about — and the one they got.

Once the artists established the doorways concept, they knew the frame had to make a path. They wanted the beginning to mark the first person buried at Saar, and the exit to capture the essence of the place. They wanted the ground of the path to only shift upward, which they accomplished using the site’s natural change in grade.

Each doorway uses a unique combination of panels, which Nelson and Gunn hired two technicians at the University of Washington’s fabrication lab to machine-cut. Other than that, the installation was the result of many 12-hour days on site for the artists.

Gunn estimated the project cost $9,000 including time and materials, some of which were donated. Nelson joked they probably made less than $1 per hour each, but money was not the driving force behind “Thresholds.”

Unearthing history

Peter Saar buried his wife, Margaret, near their home after she died giving birth to their daughter (also named Margaret) in 1873. Neighbors began asking to bury their dead in the same area. The last known burial at the cemetery, which changed ownership several times throughout the years, occurred in 1949. Of the graves at Saar with markers at least partially intact, five hold Civil War veterans and many hold the area’s prominent pioneers.

One side of the cemetery borders a road. The rest is fenced in. And then, right next door, visible from most angles, there’s the WinCo Foods parking lot.

When Karen Bouton first walked Saar’s grounds in 2004, trees blocked the sun from reaching the overgrown ivy and blackberries that obscured most of the grave markers.

Dark, gloomy — and full of history. Bouton, a member of the South King County Genealogical Society, had to get to the bottom of the brambles. She led a yearlong restoration project.

When society members finished the project and tracked the headstones, they found discrepancies between what they found and an inventory taken in 1979. Some original headstones were missing, while new markers had been added. Bodies had been moved.

Research for the society’s 416-page book about the cemetery, published in 2011, produced 89 names of people known to be buried at Saar with no headstones to prove it, yet no record of being moved elsewhere.

Bouton hired a ground-penetrating radar device to investigate. The number of coffin-sized anomalies it discovered underground was in the 80s, she said.

“A six-by-four disturbance is a good indicator that someone is buried there,” she said.

Like the grave sites it commemorates, the installation is already beginning to decay. Flecks of plywood show where the white paint has scratched off or peeled away. This natural deterioration is all part of the design.

Expiration date

When the installation closes, Nelson and Gunn aren’t sure what they’re going to do with it. It can’t go in Gunn’s studio apartment. Nelson doesn’t have room for it, either.

Some people have requested panels from the doorways, and Gunn and Nelson don’t have a problem disassembling the piece. Neither Gunn nor Nelson anticipates feeling sad to see it torn down.

“Part of life is that it comes and goes, and we wanted that impact,” Gunn said.

Hannah Leone: 206-464-2299 or